The Happiness Project

“There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy.”

- Robert Louise Stevenson, The Happiness Project, page 285

The fact that you are reading this tells me that you likely prioritize your happiness. But just in case you think it’s slightly frivolous and self-indulgent to think so much about your own happiness (I know I did), it is prudent to remember that you are impacting the happiness of those around you more than you think. We all want a happy family. That is universal. What Rubin explains is that emotional contagion operates, unfortunately, more powerfully for negative emotions than for positive emotions. Applying Rubin’s lessons on how to be happier may be the best gift you can give your family.

I had an ah-ha reading this book. My roommates in university were always (and still are) so darn happy! I always thought they just lucked out in the gene pool. Rubin points out however that genetics account for about fifty percent of our happiness. Life circumstances such as age, gender, ethnicity, marital status, income, health, occupation, and religious affiliation account for about ten to twenty percent—and the remainder results from how one thinks and acts.

You may have a defined happiness range, but what you choose to do and how you choose to think can push you to the outermost limits of your range. Perhaps my roommates were just more dedicated to being happy than I was. It’s easier, Rubin says to complain than to laugh, easier to yell than to joke around, easier to be demanding than to be satisfied (259). It takes more energy, generosity, discipline and effort to be happy than to be unhappy.

Rubin assures us from the start that she doesn’t have a new secret of happiness. That has been studied for thousands of years and laid out by some of the most brilliant minds in history. What is key, she teaches, is the application of those laws. Just like we all know the secret to losing weight is to eat better (usually less!) and exercise more: it’s the application that is challenging.

Rubin created a ‘happiness project’ as an approach to changing her life. Can it work for you too? Yes!* And likely not the same exact way it worked for her. But this book gives you plenty of inspiration to create your own path to greater happiness.

*Of course the ideas she presents do not address depression. Rubin explains that the opposite of happiness is unhappiness, not depression. Depression is a grave condition that occupies its own category. Examining the causes and remedies for depression are well beyond the scope of this book.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Resolutions That Bring Happiness

"The laws of happiness are as fixed as the laws of chemistry."
- The Happiness Project, page 7

In Rubin’s year-long happiness project, she started by first identifying what brought her joy, satisfaction and engagement and also what brought her guilt, anger, boredom and remorse. Secondly, she made resolutions by identifying the concrete actions that would boost her happiness. A resolution, she says, is significantly different than a goal in the way you ‘hit’ a goal but you ‘keep’ a resolution.

Then came the interesting part: keeping the resolutions. With energy, discipline, accountability and perseverance Rubin successfully stuck to the following resolutions each month. Here they are. Which ones do you need to work on?

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

It’s Your Choice

"I found that the ruby red slippers had been on my feet all along."
- The Happiness Project, page 289

“I found that the ruby red slippers had been on my feet all along.” P. 289


While philosophers, scientists, saints, and charlatans have provided us with laws to happiness, there is one large caveat: even if you apply all the ideas Rubin outlines above, you can still fail if you don’t choose to be happy. Simply put, if you don’t believe you are happy, then you’re not! As Publilius Syrus observed, No man is happy who does not think himself so”.

You need to do everything in your power to appreciate the life you have and choose to be happy. A driving thought for Rubin was her fear of someday looking back and saying “What a wonderful life I’ve had! I only wish I’d realized it sooner!” (2). She worried that some event, some phone call, would make her say “How happy I used to be then, if only I’d realized it” (2).

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Never Stop Growing

"Best is good, better is best."
- Lisa Grunwald, The Happiness Project, page 178

Would you rather have job A that pays $30,000 in year one, $40,000 in year two and $50,000 in year three or job B that pays $60,000 in year one, $50,000 in year two and $40,000 in year three? Isn’t it strange that somehow job A seems more appealing even though it means at the end of three years you would have made $120,000 instead of $150,000? The fact that people generally pick job A is a testament to the importance of growth to our happiness.

Have you ever achieved a big goal and then had a let down? It is often preferable to be progressing towards the summit than it is to be at the summit! Do you help yourself and your team to grow? You may have thought it unnecessary to create a ‘thermometer,’ or a visual measure of progress, but this highlights the value.

So was she happier at the end of the year? You bet! And it wasn’t just Rubin but her husband was happier also. At the end of the year, she found that she could change her life without changing her life. She didn’t need to move or find a new relationship or a new job. She needed to be grateful for what she had and discipline herself to make the tweaks in her life that are proven to bring greater joy. What one little thing do you know you need to do?

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Jill Donahue

ABOUT Jill Donahue

Everything I do is focused on improving patient outcomes. I do that by being a student and teacher of ethical, effective influence. I teach pharma people and health care professionals how to improve their ability to influence others...
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