Ruly Bookshelf: The Happiness Project

All this month, we have been discussing perfectionism, its advantages and its crippling effects when misapplied. Last week, I reviewed Dr. Alice Domar’s book, “Be Happy WIthout Being Perfect.” Today, I am discussing a book that road tests the opposite approach, “Be Happy By Being Perfect All the Time.” Of course, the book is not actually called that. The book is titled, The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin.

Ms. Rubin to date has had an impressive life. She grew up in Missouri and attended Yale University and Yale Law School. Ms. Rubin not only was the editor of the Yale Law Review but also went on to become a law clerk for Sandra Day O’Connor at the U.S. Supreme Court. She met her husband, James Rubin, (the son of Robert E. Rubin, former Secretary of the Treasury) at Yale Law School. Their wedding was written up in The New York Times and they currently live in New York with their two young daughters.

It’s a pretty perfect sounding life, eh? Apparently not perfect enough. Ms. Rubin, after achieving the pinnacle of legal education and training, decides to leave law for the pursuit of writing. Her first projects included biographies of Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy as well as a thoroughly researched manual on the good and evil practices of those who become very successful! It was very brave indeed to take on these high-profile subjects. Her books were fairly well received but, not surprisingly, those who have devoted their lives to the subjects she chose had some claws out for her.

At this point, even though she has a fairly good start going as a writer, Ms. Rubin still is dissatisfied and creates a new book, her most successful yet, The Happiness Project. The book is about Ms. Rubin’s search to become “as happy as I should be.” Ms. Rubin spends an entire year of her life focusing on a new theme each month trying to make her life “happier.” The monthly topics include “Remember Love,” “Aim Higher,” “Be Serious About Play,” “Contemplate the Heavens” and “Buy Some Happiness.”

Ms. Rubin is an extremely intelligent person who can probably out-research any of us on any subject. She is the Martha Stewart of research. She also writes clearly and has a talent for coming up with marketing catchphrases that she sprinkles throughout the book, like “Twelve Commandments,” “Secrets of Adulthood,” and a series of “Splendid Truths.”

You can definitely learn something from the myriad research topics in this book.  However, one can argue that a lot of what is presented in The Happiness Project is a method of distracting your focus on things that trouble you through perfectionism.

My first complaint about Ms. Rubin’s approach is that it does not require a person to be brutally honest with themselves. The examples below could be interpreted one of two ways.  One,  Ms. Rubin could be sugarcoating her current situation and hiding it in some legalese. Or two, Ms. Rubin might be demonstrating the perfectionist tendency to make uneven comparisons or have unrealistic expectations.

Rubin-speak Honest Translation
“I am happy – but I’m not as happy as I should be.” “I’m not happy.”
“I wanted to change my life without changing my life…” “I don’t want my life to change.”

Another classic perfectionist sign is Ms. Rubin’s statement of approval/validation hunger:

“One of my worst qualities is my insatiable need for credit; I always want the gold star, the recognition.”

–Gretchen Rubin, The Happiness Project

One could argue that the the whole concept of The Happiness Project is an exercise in external validation, with Ms. Rubin consulting every source beneath the sun on the “perfect” way to do every action.  The phrase “Studies show . . . ” appears in this book probably 500 times. There is so much research it starts to become comical. I hope that passages such as the following were really supposed to be comical and not serious, but I am not so sure.

“[Jamie and I] hugged – for at least six seconds, which I happened to know from my research, is the minimum time necessary to promote the flow of oxytocin and seratonin, mood-boosting chemicals that promote bonding. The moment of tension passed.”

–Gretchen Rubin, The Happiness Project

I don’t think Ms. Rubin has failed to find happiness because she doesn’t know how but rather because she doesn’t want to do what it would take to really make her happy. There is enough evidence in this book to suggest to me that the real source of Ms. Rubin’s unhappiness is her relationship with her husband.  The following connections were particularly interesting.

Jamie Gretchen’s Action
“I just can’t stand to see you unhappy.” Title of Book: The Happiness Project
“Jamie loves order” January’s action: “Toss, Restore, Organize”
Frequent mentions of Jamie going to the gym to exercise or doing his “daily back and knee exercises.” January’s action: “Exercise Better”
Sometimes when I sink into a bad mood, Jamie says, “Why don’t you go to your office for a while?” March happiness theme: “Work”

The February chapter focusing on their marriage is full of very strange mental gymnastics where Ms. Rubin tries to forget any disappointment she feels about anything Jamie does. Ms. Rubin even has a goal for perfecting the quality of their fights. “I wanted to be able to have fights [with my husband] that were more fun, where we could joke around and be affectionate even while we were disagreeing.” If you are a couple who “fights” like this, I would like to meet you. I suspect you don’t exist!

You can view more fighting tips, from the author herself, at her YouTube channel.

At first I questioned whether I was reading too much into this troubled marriage theme and whether my weakness for gossip was getting the best of me. My suspicions were not eased, however, when Ms. Rubin decided to write a novel in month nine, picked the subject of “two people having an affair in Manhattan“ and titled it (I kid you not) Happiness.

So, while I can’t say for sure what exactly would make Ms. Rubin happy, I think it is fairly clear that all of the extracurricular activities she pursued did not really contribute in any significant way to her happiness. They might have improved her life in various ways but at the end of the day, the test of this book is, “Does Ms Rubin feel like the happiest person alive? Has Ms. Rubin achieved the perfect level of happiness?” You will need to read it yourself to judge the answer. Interestingly, Dr. Domar’s book has a quote from Mehmet Oz, M.D. on the cover that says plainly, “Perfection is the enemy of happiness.”

Why have I spent so much time talking about a book whose fundamental concept I am not sure I agree with? Because it is a very brave and very honest account of how an extreme perfectionist views the world.

  1. Self-blame for all imperfections.
  2. Black-and-white, “perfect or nothing,” “my way or the wrong way” thinking. I was disappointed, for example, when Ms. Rubin rejects immediately the helpful suggestions of her friends, preferring her own methods. One suggested Ms. Rubin explore therapy to help discover her inner motivations and another suggests meditation during Ms. Rubin’s experimentation with “mindfulness.” Ms. Rubin explored neither.
  3. Unrealistically high expectations (even for happiness!)
  4. Routine/fear of change.
  5. Fear of losing control. Famously, in order to dance uninhibited to music, Ms. Rubin has to have her entire family leave the house and the blinds closed!

There are a few hints that Ms. Rubin wants to work on her perfectionism but mostly you get the sense that she wants everyone else to accept her perfectionism or maybe even to become just like her! If you have a perfectionist in your life, this may be the book you need to read to get some insight into the perfectionist thought process.

This book has numerous opportunities to be screamingly funny but you get the sense that Ms. Rubin sees no humor in all that she has done. Ms. Rubin’s version of happiness does not seem to involve mirth, glee, or big belly laughs. It is rather an effort to be happy in academic sense . . . seriously (very seriously) happy.

Can perfectionism solve unhappiness? Please share in the comments.