Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Happiness Project / Gretchen Rubin -- N.Y.: Harper, 2009

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin is the sort of light reading that you'll find in popular, daily blogs. It fits into the gimmicky genera of "The Year of... books" (the year of eating locally, the year of living Biblically, the year of cooking Julia Child recipes, etc...). Rubin's year consisted in making a "project" of being happier. Rubin chose this project on the belief that being happy is often thought to be the most important goal in life and while she felt she already was happy, becoming happier would not be a bad goal.

Her project divided into committing herself to twelve resolutions, one of which she concentrated on each month of the year. Actually, her twelfth resolution was to fulfill all her previous eleven resolution at once. My initial reaction to the project was somewhat negative: turning being happy into a project seemed rather artificial to me, but there were enough thoughtful passages early in the book to make me think that the book would eventually offer something worthwhile. Furthermore, Rubin anticipated nearly every facile criticism of the book that crossed my mind. She dispensed with them in a rather charming and disarming way, writing something along lines of, "O.K., but if I'm going to be happy, I've got to be myself, so I'm going to do this anyway." Fair enough.

The most serious objection to her work is the superficiality of her concept of happiness. Despite claiming to have read Aristotle, John Stuart Mill, and the Dalai Lama (or some other treatment(s) of Buddhism), her notion of happiness is by and large the temporary psychological state that has its epitome in euphoria. Contrast this with, in particular, Aristotle's concept of happiness (or eudaimonia) which goes well beyond euphoria to involve living a good life. If Rubin truly wants to follow the path recommended by philosophers through the ages, then the happiness that she ought to seek should reach beyond her first-person perceptions of her own emotional state. Certainly, pleasant experiences are likely to be a component of happiness, or a good life, but Rubin seems to think that the highest good is built on these experiences. To be fair, she occasionally recognizes that happiness contains components that are other than euphoria, but the bulk of her book is a compendium of tips on on boosting one's mood. One wonders if Prozac, Paxil, or Ecstacy might be an easier and more effective approach.

Despite this criticism, her mood-enhancing tips are frequently worthwhile and given the success of her blog, they appear to resonate with many blog-readers; some of whom claim to be following her explicit advice and engaging in "happiness projects" of their own. One should not diminish the importance of maintaining a happy state of mind nor deny that it can be cultivated. Rubin reports that her project was successful, and if it leads others to enhance their own happiness, it is all to the good. The danger is that it will feed narcissistic and ego-centric tendencies that are a significant obstacle to the general happiness.


  1. I would very much like it if you would write your own piece on the general happiness.

  2. That's a pretty tall order, but I might try taking it up at some point when my mind is quiet and I'm feeling brave.