The Happiness Project: Summary & Review

the happiness project book cover

The Happiness Project is Gretchen Rubin’s one year experiment on becoming a happier woman with simple daily action and without crazy changes such as quitting jobs, moving to another continent or giving up all material possessions.

Bullet Summary

  • You can become happier with a deliberate, daily effort
  • To make yourself happy, make others happy
  • The resolution chart was crucial to remind Gretchen daily of sticking to her goals

The Happiness Project – Summary

Gretchen Rubin says that when it comes to happiness, according to research, genetics account for 50%, life circumstances 10-20%, and all the rest is up to how we think and act (also read The Power of Positive Thinking and As a Man Thinketh).
Her personal happiness project consisted in focusing each month on a specific area of her life she wanted to improve.

JANUARY: Boost Energy (Vitality)

Research shows that happiness energizes you, and being energetic gives you higher self esteem and the firepower to entertain activities that in turn make you happier, such as socializing.
On the other hand feeling weak stressed and harder makes everything seem harder.

Gretchen decided to:

  • Go to sleep earlier
  • Exercise better
  • Toss, restore, organize
  • Tackle a nagging task
  • Act more energetic (studies show acting energetic gives you more energy)

The result?
She was impressed by the mental energy boost she got.

FEBRUARY: Remember Love (Marriage)

In February The Happiness Project tackles the romantic relationship with her husband. The author reads Gottman books, such as The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.

Rubin learns to argue well and to avoid the four horsemen of the apocalypse (criticism, contempt, defensiveness and stonewalling).
She finds out that we all have a negative bias which makes having less negative experiences more crucial than having positive ones (the magic ratio).
The author resolves to:

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

Gretchen Rubin says she wished her husband would listen more, care more or notice more about her changes and needs (indeed The Man’s Guide to Women explains men’s behavior is more important than women’s in happy relationships).
But overall, she was very pleased with the positive changes she could make single-handedly in her relationship.

At one point the author went full throttle: she decided that for a week she would go above and beyond in giving and asking for nothing. She dubbed it “week of extreme nice” (which is a great way to stop vicious circles BTW).
It was difficult and she was a bit disappointed her husband failed to recognize and appreciate her for it.

Read More on Relationships

As you can see, I researched a lot about relationships as well. If you want to master this area of your life check:

MARCH: Aim Higher (Work)

Gretchen knew from her research that challenge and novelty are key elements of happiness, and that’s why she decided to launch a blog. Enthusiasm is also more important than innate ability in reaching mastery because it fuels your willingness to practice.

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

I found especially interesting how she tackles here the arrival fallacy, such as the idea that when X will happen we’ll be happier. That’s often not true and we should all learn to enjoy the destination instead.

APRIL: Lighten Up (Parenthood)

In April Gretchel realizes that it’s true that acting the way you want to feel works. Singing in the morning was indeed proving a major driver of happiness.

  • Sing in the morning
  • Acknowledge the reality of people’s feelings
  • Be a treasure house of happy memories (revisiting and remembering happy moments worked for her)
  • Take time for projects

MAY: Be Serious About Play (Leisure)

The Happiness Project tasks for May:

  • Find more fun
  • Take time to be silly
  • Go off the path
  • Start a collection (didn’t work for her)

Gretchen realizes that because something is fun for someone else, it doesn’t necessarily work for you. Finding happiness with your happiness project is also about finding your own path and experimenting. And knowing yourself helps a lot.

JUNE: Make Time for Friends (Friendship)

The personal traits that most predict life satisfaction are the interpersonal one. Meaning: friendships, relationships and social interactions are some of the most important, if not THE most important elements of a happy life (also check social skills mastery).

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

Gretchen was focusing on making other feel good by “helping them think big” (also read The Magic of Thinking Big), which basically consisted in her telling people they should do and go for what they want.
And as she did that, she reached her first magic breakthrough: to make yourself happy, make others happy.

She focuses here on making new friends and being better at socializing.
She holds back on criticizing, make follow up questions, tries to understand when people are looking for opportunities to say more and she focuses on being warm.

JULY: Buy Some Happiness (MONEY)

The Happiness Project focuses here on the relationship between happiness and money. It’s a complex topic, but you can boil it down like this: money does not and cannot buy happiness. But it can help.

  • Indulge in a modest splurge (worked for her only when done rarely)
  • Buy needful things
  • Spend out
  • Give something up

I really, really loved this part because it really spoke to me. Gretchen goes into some very key tenets of happiness for me which are:

Maximizes look to all possible options before buying. They waste time and usually end up more unhappy than people who buy as soon as they find something they like (satisfiers).
And they are also more regretful when they find new possible options they could have bought.

  • Underbuyers and overbuyers

Underbuyers only buy when something is strictly needed. And that leaves them worried, for example, their toilet paper will soon run out.
Overbuyers on the other hand have houses full of stocks they often end up throwing away.

  • Spenders and keepers

Spender enjoy what they buy. Keepers keep things for some distant future. They often never use it until their beloved product has passed out of style, is expired or… They died.
As a damn keeper, I am working on this.
This is also true for ideas. For example Gretchen Rubin says she would think of a good idea for a post and then “save it” for the future. Much better to spend out, she realizes, and trusting in abundance.

  • Buyers and discarders

Some people use things out over and over, trying to squeeze the last tiny bit of value out of dull razors, old underwear and ugly clothes they don’t want to throw away.
This creates clutter and baggages. Learn to remove and throw out, instead.

AUGUST: Contemplate the Heavens (Eternity)

August in Gretchen’s happiness project meant focusing on spirituality.

  • Read memoirs of catastrophe (to enjoy what she has)
  • Keep a gratitude notebook
  • Imitate a spiritual master

The gratitude book didn’t work for the author as she was doing it every day and it felt forced. If you do the same, do it more rarely.

Admit Happiness

Some people, says the author, are afraid of admitting happiness in fear of jinxing themselves. This only reduces their level of happiness though.

SEPTEMBER: Pursue a Passion (Books)

In the ninth month of her happiness project the author tackles the following mini-projects:

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

The author talks to some people who doesn’t believe you can pursue happiness and that simply focusing on happiness will make you unhappy.
They followed John Stuart Mill quote:

Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so

But Gretchen Rubin, strong of her own personal successful experience of increasing her own happiness, strongly disagrees.

You’re happy if you think you’re happy

OCTOBER: Pay Attention (Mindfulness)

The author stops to reflect and enjoy the small things of life. Pushing her baby in a stroller, watching her play and savoring the beautiful daily moments with her family.

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

I especially liked a passage in which she went to help her child trying to climb stairs. She wanted to take her newspaper with her to read and then she stopped herself.
That was it, she thought: a beautiful summer day, the sun, her husband nearby and her daughter learning to climb stairs. That was it.

NOVEMBER: Keep a Contented Heart (Attitude)

The author forces herself to laugh out loud even when she didn’t feel like it, but if often worked:

  • Laugh out loud
  • Use good manners
  • Give positive reviews (look for the positive in everything)
  • Find an area of refuge.

The author realizes here that she has a tendency to being belligerent in conversation. When someone said something, she’d naturally look for ways why it wasn’t true and for ways to contradict it.
I have this same tendency, which is something that Tony Robbins calls “mismatchers”, such as people looking for contrarian examples.

She realizes also that being critical can be addictive because it makes people come across as more intelligent and discerning as compared to people who agree and pontificate.
She resolves to move beyond it and to only give positive reviews.

DECEMBER: Boot Camp Perfect (Happiness)

December is the recap month for the happiness project.
Gretchen tries to put everything together and stick to all resolution she has done in the previous eleven months.

It’s also a time for reflection.
She realizes that the biggest boosts in her happiness came from eliminating all those behavior, feelings and pattern of thoughts that made her feel bad.
Such as: too much clutter around, snapping, nagging, bad food, gossiping and “controlling her sharp tongue”. She says she was able sometimes to stop mid sentence and change tone, or change tone before even speaking (this is emotional intelligence by the way).

But the most effective tool was her resolution chart. The resolution chart kept her focused and reviewing it everyday kept her goals present in her mind at every turn.

the happiness project book cover

Real Life Applications

Spend out!
Use what you love and makes you happy

Throw out what you don’t like and don’t use (sorry, let me fix that: give it away or sell).

Admit happiness!
Don’t be afraid of jinxing yourself. Admit when you’re happy, celebrate it… And remind yourself of those moments

Move past disagreement
If you also tend to always look for counterarguments and counterexamples, only restrict it to areas where they will serve you well. Socializing is NOT one of them!

Resolution chart
A resolution chart is different than goals. Goals you hit or miss them. A resolution chart pushes you to try to be your best and when you fail it’s OK: there’s still tomorrow to do your best once again.


Research references?
Gretchen Rubin often says “research says…” but never links and rarely quotes any research. I wish she did.

She never meditated
The author said she never meditated because she didn’t feel like it.
If it’s a project of trying new things though, I felt she should have forced herself at least to try. Especially after so many were telling her it’s important.


Natural, everyday tone
I liked Gretchen Rubin’s writing style: conversational and natural. It flows naturally and that makes it a crossover between a novel and a great self help book.

No talking down tone
Grechen never pretends of being better than what she is and never lectures. She opens up on all the challenges and difficulties she faces, which makes The Happiness Project all the more valuable.

P.S.: she could use that same demure, everyday tone on her website too. “Blockbuster New York Times best seller” and “has an enormous readership” sound like unneeded self aggrandizing.

The Happiness Project is not only an easy read, but also often funny. Here’s an example that made me smile:

That night I did a better job, largely because I was so tired that I went to bed at nine. Being asleep is a great way to avoid being critical.

Lots of wisdom
There’s really a lot of wisdom here. You can see Grechen is a fellow avid reader and she has learned a lot. I learned a lot too, thanks to her.  And I love that.

Powerful message: little things matter
The Happiness Project shows everyone that to change for the better you don’t need to change your life or move to another continent. The little, everyday things are what makes all the difference.


I loved “The Happiness Project”.
I wasn’t thinking I could ever give 5 stars to a book that seemed very light and doesn’t set out to improve you or teach you anything. But it doesn’t matter what it sets out to do: it did improve me and it did teach me a lot.

If you’re looking for ways to be happier, to improve yourself and even to get to know yourself better, chances are you will love The Happiness Project.

Edit: Eventually I demoted it to 4 stars. As good as it is, time showed me that it didn’t leave a mark.
Still highly recommend, though!

Read more summaries or get the book on Amazon

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