the happiness project book summary

Book Summary: The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

The Book in Three Sentences

In this book summary of The Happiness Project, you’ll read a description of Gretchen Rubin’s year-long attempt to discover true happiness. For the experiment, Rubin studied concepts from science, classical philosophy, and real-world experience. The result is a motivational chronicle that encourages you to transform your life and be happier.

The Happiness Project Summary

The author defines a Happiness Project as a personal undertaking that has the potential to change your life. The first part is the preparation stage where you establish the things that give you joy, as well as the activities that make you guilty, angry, or bored. The second part involves writing a series of resolutions. These are the concrete actions that will lead to happiness (you’ll find these resolutions as bullets after each month). The final step involves keeping those resolutions so that you can make them a reality.

The book documents Rubin’s Happiness Project. At some point, she was worried she was wasting her life, so she decided to be happier by doing all the things she always wanted. Also, she wanted to bring awareness to her habits and be more intentional with her life. She had a lot to be grateful for, but rarely took the time to appreciate it. The idea was to dedicate a year to be happier, something she called The Happiness Project.

Chapter 1: January – Boost Energy (Vitality)

  • Go to sleep earlier
  • Exercise better
  • Toss, restore, organize
  • Tackle a nagging task
  • Act more energetic

For the first month of the year, Rubin wanted more energy. Having energy makes everything effortless, or at least, less daunting. There are two sides to energy: physical energy and mental energy. For the author, physical energy meant sleeping and exercising more. For mental energy, she wanted to clear the clutter from her apartment and office and take care of some tasks from her to-do list.

There are numerous benefits to getting enough sleep, but the main one is that it improves your mood and happiness. Sleep deprivation, on the other hand, has catastrophic effects: it negatively impacts your memory, weakens your immune system, and slows your metabolism. To sleep better, avoid mentally demanding tasks before bed, keep your bedroom cold and dark, and stretch.

Exercising is one of the best habits a person can start. It helps you think clearly, makes you healthier, and helps you sleep better. Exercising is all about committing to a routine because once you start, exercising feels so good that you won’t be able to stop. As long as you exercise for its own sake and not for an external reward, you’ll enjoy it. There are different ways to exercise, but one of the best, most effective, and simplest ways to start is by walking.

Similarly, having a disorganized environment also drains your energy. Neglected tasks also drain you emotionally. Physical clutter tends to accumulate quickly without realizing it until it becomes a problem. 

To organize her home, the author divided items into the following kinds of clutter:

  • Nostalgic clutter: these are relics from a younger self
  • Conservation clutter: these are items you keep just in case
  • Bargain clutter: these are things you buy on sale
  • Freebie clutter: these are items you get for free
  • Crutch clutter: these are things you use but you shouldn’t
  • Aspirational clutter: these are items you have and you hope to use one day
  • Outgrown clutter: these are things that were useful at some point but no longer fit
  • Buyer’s remorse clutter: these are things you bought as a mistake, but you use them anyway because you don’t want to admit you made a bad purchase

There are numerous benefits to decluttering your environment: you have more space, you save money, and you don’t feel paralyzed about what to wear. There’s also something therapeutic about cleaning out your home since it makes you feel calm and organized.

Unfinished tasks also drain your energy. The simplest way to tackle them is by writing a to-do list and doing them in order of importance. Understand that some tasks you never get rid of entirely. The most difficult part about dealing with certain tasks is whether to do them or not. Tackling chores you’ve put off for a while can improve your mood significantly.

Chapter 2: February – Remember Love (Marriage)

  • Quit nagging
  • Don’t expect praise or appreciation
  • Fight right
  • No dumping
  • Give proofs of love

Marital happiness is affected the moment a couple has children. Minor irritations accumulate over the years and they can lead to bigger issues if they go unaddressed for too long. To be happy, you must have a good marriage. This is the case because a marriage provides support and companionship. Never try to change someone else, the only person you can change is yourself. The most common problems among couples are related to money, work, sex, communication, religion, children, in-laws, appreciation, and hobbies.

To have a romantic and passionate marriage, you need the feeling of friendship. Nagging has the potential to ruin friendship and passion. A more subtle form of nagging is expecting appreciation. In marriages, you have two issues: the ones that can be solved and the ones that can’t. Most problems in a marriage fall into the second category. Disagreements in a marriage are inevitable and how you fight is important because it determines the health of the relationship. Put simply, how you fight is more important than how much you fight.

The best way to fight is by focusing on one topic, easing into arguments, and making “repair attempts” so that things don’t escalate. Ideally, a marriage shouldn’t be about maximizing pleasant experiences, but about minimizing unpleasant ones. This is the case because we have a negativity bias, a tendency to focus too much on bad events.

Don’t be with someone solely because you want them to help you with your emotional problems. The only person who can work on your emotional problems is yourself. By focusing on improving yourself, you can positively impact the mood of those around you. Whenever possible, don’t dump your worries on your close friends or family members.

Finally, give proofs of love. Some people believe that unless you show love through actions, there is no love. So we must express affection toward the people who are important to us. It’s common to fall into bad habits, but bring awareness to them so that you can prevent them before they happen. When it comes to your partner, spend alone time together, be considerate to each other, and avoid criticizing.

While she was working on her marriage, Rubin came up with what she called the First Splendid Truth:

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

Chapter 3: March – Aim Higher (Work)

  • Launch a blog
  • Enjoy the fun of failure
  • Ask for help
  • Work smart
  • Enjoy now

To work, you need happiness and to be happy, you need work. Happy people are more productive, more cooperative, and less self-centered. They also make better leaders, and they are less likely to suffer from burnout. Furthermore, happy people are also perceived as more self-confident, more friendly, warmer, and more attractive. When it comes to fulfilling work, we must push ourselves outside of our comfort zone.

Although it’s easy to focus on an imaginary future, the best thing you can do is enjoy the present moment. The fun doesn’t have to be a future goal but the everyday process.

Chapter 4: April – Lighten Up (Parenthood)

  • Sing in the morning
  • Acknowledge the reality of people’s feelings
  • Be a treasure house of happy memories
  • Take time for projects

Children are a great source of happiness. They’re also a great sense of worry, irritation, expense, inconvenience, and loss of sleep. Children give happiness not in the moment-to-moment, but in a more profound manner that most parents have trouble articulating. Dedicating a month to improve your parenthood can include many things. For the author, it meant creating a better atmosphere at home.

When dealing with children, the best thing you can do is to acknowledge their feelings. To signal this, you can write it down, explain things to them instead of saying “no” or “stop”, or admit when something is difficult. Never deny bad feelings. Another way to keep a joyful environment for your children is to reinforce the good memories you have together. One way to create happy memories is by having family traditions since they provide anticipation, security, and continuity. Since family traditions also involve something special (decorations, food, or games), they’re also hard to forget. Traditions also involve projects: birthdays, sending out cards, decorating the house, or cooking a special meal. Projects require time, energy, planning, and patience, but they’re the highlight of both children and adults.

To make the most out of happiness, we must anticipate it, savor it, express it, and recall it. The more attention you give to certain experiences, the more you amplify the happiness you get out of them. The best part about having children is also reconnecting with activities you wouldn’t normally do, such as going to the park, reading bedtime stories, watching animated movies, going to museums, or fingerpainting.

Chapter 5: May – Be Serious About Play (Leisure)

  • Find more fun
  • Take time to be silly
  • Go off the path
  • Start a collection

Play involves doing activities for their own sake and not for money or ambition. Everyone has a different idea of what fun looks like, so you have to figure out what it means for you specifically. If you’re having trouble coming up with activities, ask yourself: “What did I like doing when I was a kid?” With this in mind, Rubin bought a scrapbook where she compiled all the things that resonated, such as photographs, quotes, magazine articles, and so on. Discovering the activities you like can bring you sadness because they can make you confront the fact that you never want to do certain things ever again. The world is a vast place, offering innumerable things and you can’t appreciate most of what it has to offer.

Focusing on work and mental to-do lists often leads to seriousness and humorlessness, but it doesn’t have to be that way. To create a great atmosphere, joke, play games, and engage in silly behavior. Having a sense of adventure also never hurts. This implies going to new places and having new experiences. Eventually, you’ll be able to bring this willingness to take risks in most areas of life. Follow your curiosity even if it doesn’t lead to productive endeavors right away. Additionally, try things you wouldn’t normally try and see what happens. You might dread it, or you might love it, but at least, you’ll be exposed to things you wouldn’t try otherwise.

The final task the author tried was to start a collection. Collecting things gives you a sense of constant excitement, and it encourages you to become an expert in something.

As part of this month’s experiment, the author concluded that ”fun” can be classified into three categories:

  • Challenging fun: this is the most rewarding, as well as the most demanding. It can lead to frustration, anxiety, and hard work. It also demands time and effort, but it pays off in the end. Examples include writing a novel or learning to play an instrument.
  • Accommodating fun: it’s less challenging but still requires effort. This is something you do to strengthen relationships and build memories with others. Examples include family holidays or a movie with friends.
  • Relaxing fun: this is easy since it doesn’t require any skills. Examples include watching movies or playing video games. This kind of fun is passive, but so easy that most people default to it often.

Chapter 6: June – Make Time for Friends (Friendship)

  • Remember birthdays
  • Be generous
  • Show up
  • Don’t gossip
  • Make three new friends

Having strong bonds with other people is the best way to be happy. Every activity you do benefits from having someone to do it with. Having strong relationships lengthens your life, boosts your immunity, and you’re less likely to suffer from depression.

While she focused on her friends, the author accidentally found her Second Splendid Truth:

“One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.”

The best way to be friends with someone is by showing up. For a friendship to survive, you must put some effort into it. Gossip (which usually involves criticizing other people) creates a sense of togetherness, but it makes you feel bad after doing it, so it must be avoided.

Whenever possible, be open to the possibility of meeting new people. The best things to keep in mind when you meet someone for the first time include:

  • Smile frequently
  • Invite others to join the conversation
  • Create a positive mood
  • Open a conversation
  • Look accessible and warm
  • Be vulnerable
  • Ask questions

Chapter 7: July – Buy Some Happiness (Money)

  • Indulge in a modest splurge
  • Buy needful things
  • Spend out
  • Give something up

The relationship between money and happiness is complicated. Money is a way to get things, but it’s also a symbol of social status and success. Money, by itself, can’t buy happiness, but it can help.

Three factors determine the significance of money to people:

  1. Money means something different to everyone
  2. Certain purchases make you happier than others
  3. How much money you make relative to those around you matters

Money doesn’t make you happy, but not having it makes you unhappy. That said, money can contribute to happiness in the sense that having it means you have one less thing to worry about, your financial problems.

When you can afford it, go for more expensive options of the things you want. If you like writing, buy expensive pens. If you like exercising, buy a gym membership. The key is to spend money on the things that are important to you. That said, money gives you immediate gratification and works as a shortcut to happiness. In exchange for that shortcut, we lose the anticipation. There are two approaches to buying: underbuying and overbuying. Underbuyers delay purchases of buy in very small quantities. Overbuyers buy things immediately and often in big supplies.

As part of the decision-making process, we can identify two types of people, maximizers and satisficers. Maximizers want to make the best decision possible and to do so, they feel the need to examine all options available. Satisficers, on the other hand, make a decision the moment their criteria are met. Satisficers are happier than maximizers because they spend less time and energy making decisions. Also, it pays off to do things for their own sake, not to expect something in return. Similarly, don’t save things for an imaginary future, use them now.

As counterproductive as it may sound, giving something up can also make you happy. Maybe this means not smoking, eating junk food, buying lottery tickets, subscribing to cable TV, or shopping for things you don’t need. Giving yourself the order to stop gives you a sense of control, efficacy, or responsibility.

Chapter 8: August – Contemplate the Heavens (Eternity)

  • Read memoirs of catastrophe
  • Keep a gratitude notebook
  • Imitate a spiritual master

After focusing on money for a month, the author decided to move to the spiritual realm. The idea was to move from material things to eternal things. As part of her project, she became interested in religion. Her first step involved meditating on death by reading memoirs of people who faced some sort of personal catastrophe (divorce, addiction, paralysis, and so on). As morbid as it sounds, reading about people who face loss, gives you appreciation for what you have. This also helps you be more present. In a way, ordinary life is precious, but we rarely take the time to enjoy it.

As she did all this, Rubin came up with her Third Splendid Truth:

“The days are long, but the years are short.”

One way to reflect on your mortality is by having children. Children grow up fast and the games you play today will soon pass away. As difficult as it is to accept, loss and death are an inevitable part of life and once you start thinking about it, the feeling will never leave you. To reflect on her own life, Gretchen started a “one-sentence journal” where she would write a one-sentence journal entry every day. She also updated her will.

Expressing gratitude is important to be happy. There are different ways to express gratitude, such as starting a gratitude notebook, meditating, and trying to be present.

To gain more discipline, you can also imitate a spiritual master. To do this, you must choose someone you admire and then read everything you can about that person. Just keep in mind that researching someone shouldn’t be about drastically changing your life, but about starting small habits that make you happy.

Chapter 9: September – Pursue a Passion (Books)

  • Write a novel
  • Make time
  • Forget about results
  • Master a new technology

September was about pursuing a passion and in the case of the author, that meant everything related to books. Once you recognize your passion, you must make time for it. A lot of people feel overwhelmed by the idea of finding their passion. When it happens, think about the activities you enjoyed as a kid or the things you choose to do when you’re free. Everyone has different inclinations, you just need to find yours and follow it. The best way to approach your passion is by doing what comes naturally to you. In the case of Gretchen, she allowed herself to take down as many notes from books as she wanted. Although this habit didn’t seem valuable while doing it, her notes were extremely useful. Also, don’t force anything, accept your nature.

As the month was about to end, the author found her Fourth Splendid Truth:

“You’re not happy unless you think you’re happy.

Chapter 10: October – Pay Attention (Mindfulness)

  • Meditate on koans
  • Examine the rules
  • Stimulate the mind in new ways
  • Keep a food diary

Whenever the author mentioned she was working on a book about happiness, people mentioned Buddhism. Although not everything about the religion made an impression, the author thought mindfulness is an important concept. For those unfamiliar, mindfulness involves non-judgemental awareness. One of the most effective ways to practice mindfulness is through meditation, but as important as it is for some people, Rubin decided not to try it. She did try some Zen koans which are statements or questions that have no logic. During October, Rubin also came up with some “true rules”, a collection of principles for making decisions faster. Some of them include:

  • “My children are my most important priority”
  • “Get some exercise every day”
  • “Get some work done every day”
  • “Try to attend any party or even to which I’m invited”

Finally, something the author tried was applying the principles of mindfulness to her eating habits, so she created a food diary.

Chapter 11: November – Keep a Contented Heart (Attitude)

  • Laugh out loud
  • Use good manners
  • Give positive reviews
  • Find an area of refuge

November was the month in which the author tried to include everything she hadn’t covered before. She compiled all those things into a category she called “attitude”. Rubin found it easy to have a negative attitude rather than a positive one, so she decided to change that.

First, she decided to laugh more. Laughter improves immunity and lowers your blood pressure, and it’s also a way to bond socially. It also doesn’t hurt that laughing “feels” good. The easiest way to laugh more often is to listen to people. Once you start laughing, even if you fake it, it’ll turn into real laughter.

There’s something fun about criticizing. It makes you feel intelligent and competent. That said, liking something wholeheartedly when everyone else mocks it is admirable. Genuine enthusiasm is contagious. Whenever possible, refrain from criticizing and look for ways to be enthusiastic. In other words, try not to say anything negative and see what happens.

Chapter 12: December – Boot Camp Perfect (Happiness)

  • Boot camp perfect

This final month was about following all of her resolutions. The author called this Boot Camp Perfect. She soon realized that doing this took time, discipline, and self-control. As a result, she did a lot of things, but she failed to do many others as well. Even on her bad days though, she’d feel good because her resolutions made her happier. As the end of the year approached, Rubin concluded that the Happiness Project was a resounding success.

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