The So-Called Elusive Art of Happiness

Valerie ZhangAugust 11, 2016HappinessMedia

Is it possible to change your life without actually changing your life?

Gretchen Rubin, in her book The Happiness Project, attempts to answer this question. The Happiness Project details Rubin’s year-long quest to amplify the happiness in her life. Each month, Rubin pursues a different set of resolutions, from taking time to be silly to launching a blog, and slowly develops her own definition of happiness. By keeping track of which resolutions work and which do not, sharing her stories through her blog, and reading everything from classical philosophy to Winston Churchill to Oprah, Rubin eventually develops habits that increase her happiness.

At the beginning of The Happiness Project, Rubin develops her own 12 commandments, which range from more specific goals — like “Be polite and fair” and “Identify the problem” — to more abstract mantras like “Be Gretchen.” “Be Gretchen” was inspired by the Dutch humanist Erasmus, who said, “The chief happiness for a man is to be what he is.” Rubin, by drawing on Erasmus’ words, attempts to understand who she actually is rather than who she is when she does activities she does not like.

Rubin describes a conversation with her younger sister Elizabeth about her experiments in happiness. Though Elizabeth thinks Rubin’s decision to dedicate a year trying to be happier is weird in a “good way,” she also questions approaching the question of happiness in such a “dogged, systematic way.” Elizabeth essentially finds turning abstract goals such as “Be happier” or “Embrace now” into action items impossible. Unlike Rubin, Elizabeth believes happiness cannot be approached like a checklist. There is no series of tasks that will necessarily lead to lasting happiness.

While I initially agreed with Elizabeth when I began reading The Happiness Project, I slowly came to realize my own opinion on happiness: it is possible to make oneself happier. Consciously trying to improve one’s happiness in a rational way can result in increased happiness, although the improvement ranges wildly depending on the action.

When I was younger, I correlated happiness solely to having fun. Spending time with my friends and going to carnival games with my family seemed to be the only sources of happiness. As I grew older, my view of happiness became more nuanced. While I still find having fun to be a source of temporary happiness, I believe lasting happiness comes from being able to cope with the stress and worries of life, to recognize and eventually combat the problems in our lives. Thus, if we take actions to eliminate the root problems that get in the way of happiness, we can actually make ourselves happier.

Of course, not all actions will necessarily improve our happiness. When I feel overworked or stressed, ignoring those feelings and continuing to do my homework will not make me feel better. Instead, taking a few minutes to address the root of my stress — be it fear of receiving a bad grade or fear of not understanding what I am learning — is a much better approach

Although one of Rubin’s principles is to identify the problem, I believe her approach is insufficient. Identifying the problem is not enough; we must take steps to address the root of the issue. For instance, if someone recognizes that binge watching television is causing them unhappiness, he or she should not continue to watch another TV series!

Although Rubin identifies the problem, her solutions do not address the root causes of her unhappiness. Her monthly resolutions only scratch the surface of her life. Rather than looking deeply within herself, Rubin turns to generic resolutions like “go to sleep earlier,” “find more fun,” and “exercise better” when trying to improve her relationships with other people or herself. While I agree that exercising and sleeping more can greatly improve one’s health and happiness, I had hoped to find insights that were less trivial. Though other aspects of the story — such as Rubin’s nuanced examination of her habit of nagging — demonstrate more self-awareness, they do not completely make up for the underwhelming elements of The Happiness Project.

I rate this story three stars out of five. Those who are looking for a quick, lighthearted memoir with fun anecdotes will enjoy the story, but readers who would like a life-changing book with tips to apply to their own lives should look somewhere else. Though The Happiness Project contains flashes of brilliance, such as when Rubin details sticking with a class that gave her extreme anxiety, often the story seems quite superficial. Too often does Rubin decide she “might as well ‘Be Gretchen’” without specifying what exactly being Gretchen constitutes, and too little does she explore the underlying causes of her unhappiness.

Perhaps happiness is more evasive than we’d like to believe; maybe changing one’s sleep schedule or eating healthier meals will not lead to lasting happiness. After all, if attaining lasting happiness were truly that easy, the whole world would be eating broccoli and sleeping eight hours a day. True happiness is more complex and subtle than we may think.

Valerie Zhang is 16 and in the 11th grade. Her interests include writing anything and everything, reading contemporary fiction, and solving seemingly impossible math problems. She aspires to be an autodidact, or at least seem like one.