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The Happiness Project summary

The actual book is divided up into months, where Rubin's tackles one theme that she hypothesizes will contribute to her overall happiness. It's therefore quite a structured book, but I've chosen to just pick and choose the key points which really stuck with me.


  • I needed to change the lens through which I viewed everything familiar.
  • According to current research, in the determination of a person’s level of happiness, genetics accounts for about 50 percent; life circumstances, such as age, gender, ethnicity, marital status, income, health, occupation, and religious affiliation, account for about 10 to 20 percent; and the remainder is a product of how a person thinks and acts.
  • Even people who can’t agree on what it means to be “happy” can agree that most people can be “happier,” according to their own particular definition. I know when I feel happy.
  • People are more likely to make progress on goals that are broken into concrete, measurable actions, with some kind of structured accountability and positive reinforcement.
  • Contemporary research shows that happy people are more altruistic, more productive, more helpful, more likable, more creative, more resilient, more interested in others, friendlier, and healthier. Happy people make better friends, colleagues, and citizens. I wanted to be one of those people.
  • In a virtuous circle, research shows, being happy energizes you, and at the same time, having more energy makes it easier for you to engage in activities—like socializing and exercise—that boost happiness. Studies also show that when you feel energetic, your self-esteem rises. Feeling tired, on the other hand, makes everything seem arduous.
  • Just stepping outside clarifies thinking and boosts energy. Light deprivation is one reason that people feel tired, and even five minutes of daylight stimulates production of serotonin and dopamine, brain chemicals that improve mood.
  • Although people believe they like to have lots of choice, in fact, having too many choices can be discouraging. Instead of making people feel more satisfied, a wide range of options can paralyze them.
  • I also tried to be more observant and appreciative of all the tasks that Jamie did. I was certainly guilty of “unconscious overclaiming,” the phenomenon in which we unconsciously overestimate our contributions or skills relative to other people. (It’s related to the Garrison Keillor–named “Lake Wobegon fallacy,” which describes the fact that we all fancy ourselves to be above average.)
  • I remember talking to a friend whose parents had been very involved in the civil rights movement. “They always said,” he told me, “that you have to do that kind of work for yourself. If you do it for other people, you end up wanting them to acknowledge it and to be grateful and to give you credit. If you do it for yourself, you don’t expect other people to react in a particular way.”
  • Fighting style is very important to the health of a marriage; Gottman’s “love laboratory” research shows that how a couple fights matters more than how much they fight. Couples who fight right tackle only one difficult topic at a time, instead of indulging in arguments that cover every grievance since the first date. These couples ease into arguments instead of blowing up immediately—and avoid bombs such as “You never . . .” and “You always . . .” They know how to bring an argument to an end, instead of keeping it going for hours. They make “repair attempts” by using words or actions to keep bad feelings from escalating. They recognize other pressures imposed on a spouse.
  • There’s an intriguing difference in how men and women approach intimacy. Although men and women agree that sharing activities and self-disclosure are important, women’s idea of an intimate moment is a face-to-face conversation, while men feel close when they work or play sitting alongside someone.
  • Learning that men and women both turn to women for understanding showed me that Jamie wasn’t ignoring me out of lack of interest or affection; he just wasn’t good at giving that kind of support.
  • Happiness has a particularly strong influence in marriage, because spouses pick up each other’s moods so easily. A 30 percent increase in one spouse’s happiness boosts the other spouse’s happiness, while a drop in one spouse’s happiness drags the other down. (Not only that: I was fascinated to learn that in a phenomenon known as “health concordance,” partners’ health behaviors tend to merge, as they pick up good or bad habits from each other related to eating, exercising, visiting doctors, smoking, and drinking.)
  • Pierre Reverdy: “There is no love; there are only proofs of love.” Whatever love I might feel in my heart, others will see only my actions.
  • ...the well-known notion of anger catharsis is poppycock. There’s no evidence for the belief that “letting off steam” is healthy or constructive. In fact, studies show that aggressively expressing anger doesn’t relieve anger but amplifies it. On the other hand, not expressing anger often allows it to disappear without leaving ugly traces.
  • To be happy, I needed to generate more positive emotions, so that I increased the amount of joy, pleasure, enthusiasm, gratitude, intimacy, and friendship in my life. That wasn’t hard to understand. I also needed to remove sources of bad feelings, so that I suffered less guilt, remorse, shame, anger, envy, boredom, and irritation.
  • “Feeling right” is about living the life that’s right for you—in occupation, status, and so on. It’s also about virtue: doing your duty, living up to the expectations you set for yourself. For some people, “feeling right” can also include less elevated considerations: achieving a certain job status or material standard of living.
  • Then I thought of a line from William Butler Yeats. “Happiness,” wrote Yeats, “is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing nor that, but simply growth. We are happy when we are growing.” Contemporary researchers make the same argument: that it isn’t goal attainment but the process of striving after goals—that is, growth—that brings happiness.
  • The First Splendid Truth: To be happy, I need to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.
  • When you give up expecting a spouse to change (within reason), you lessen anger and resentment, and that creates a more loving atmosphere in a marriage.
  • This is one of the many paradoxes of happiness: we seek to control our lives, but the unfamiliar and the unexpected are important sources of happiness.
  • One reason that challenge brings happiness is that it allows you to expand your self-definition. You become larger. Suddenly you can do yoga or make homemade beer or speak a decent amount of Spanish. Research shows that the more elements make up your identity, the less threatening it is when any one element is threatened.
  • When I thought about why I was sometimes reluctant to push myself, I realized that it was because I was afraid of failure—but in order to have more success, I needed to be willing to accept more failure. I remembered the words of Robert Browning: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” To counteract this fear, I told myself, “I enjoy the fun of failure.” It’s fun to fail, I kept repeating. It’s part of being ambitious; it’s part of being creative. If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.
  • Not several hours but ninety minutes turned out to be the optimally efficient length of time—long enough for me to get some real work done but not so long that I started to goof off or lose concentration. As a consequence, I began to organize my day into ninety-minute writing blocks, separated by different non-writing tasks: exercising, meeting someone, making a phone call, tinkering with my blog. Also, although I’d always considered fifteen minutes to be too short a period in which to get anything done, I started to push myself to squeeze in an extra fifteen minutes somewhere during the day.
  • The challenge, therefore, is to take pleasure in the “atmosphere of growth,” in the gradual progress made toward a goal, in the present. The unpoetic name for this very powerful source of happiness is “pre-goal-attainment positive affect.”
  • The days are long, but the years are short.
  • The most important lesson from Faber and Mazlish’s books is simple and as applicable to adults as to children: we should acknowledge the reality of people’s feelings. In other words, don’t deny feelings such as anger, irritation, fear, or reluctance; instead, articulate the feeling and the other person’s point of view.
  • Experts say that denying bad feelings intensifies them; acknowledging bad feelings allows good feelings to return.
  • Studies show that recalling happy times helps boost happiness in the present. When people reminisce, they focus on positive memories, with the result that recalling the past amplifies the positive and minimizes the negative. However, because people remember events better when they fit with their present mood, happy people remember happy events better, and depressed people remember sad events better. Depressed people have as many nice experiences as other people—they just don’t recall them as well.
  • Studies show that the absence of feeling bad isn’t enough to make you happy; you must strive to find sources of feeling good. One way to feel good is to make time for play—which researchers define as an activity that’s very satisfying, has no economic significance, doesn’t create social harm, and doesn’t necessarily lead to praise or recognition. Research shows that regularly having fun is a key factor in having a happy life; people who have fun are twenty times as likely to feel happy.
  • Studies show that in a phenomenon called “emotional contagion,” we unconsciously catch emotions from other people—whether good moods or bad ones.
  • Happiness isn’t something we should consider only when life is going well and also isn’t something we should consider only when life is going badly.
  • Having strong social bonds is probably the most meaningful contributor to happiness.
  • Studies show that your happiness is often boosted more by providing support to other people than from receiving support yourself.
  • One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy. One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.
  • The “fundamental attribution error” is a psychological phenomenon in which we tend to view other people’s actions as reflections of their characters and to overlook the power of situation to influence their actions, whereas with ourselves, we recognize the pressures of circumstance.
  • Familiarity, it turns out, breeds affection. The “mere exposure effect” is the term for the fact that repeated exposure makes you like music, faces—even nonsense syllables—better. The more often you see a person, the more intelligent and attractive you’ll find that person.
  • I learned another reason not to say critical things about other people: “spontaneous trait transference.” Studies show that because of this psychological phenomenon, people unintentionally transfer to me the traits I ascribe to other people. So if I tell Jean that Pat is arrogant, unconsciously Jean associates that quality with me. On the other hand, if I say that Pat is brilliant or hilarious, I’m linked to those qualities. What I say about other people sticks to me—even when I talk to someone who already knows me. So I do well to say only good things.
  • Trying to make friends focused my attention on the challenge of making a good first impression—that is, how to act so that others would be interested in befriending me. First impressions are important, because when people evaluate others, they weigh initial information much more heavily than later information. Within ten minutes of meeting a new person, in fact, people decide what kind of relationship they want.
  • When making friends, you’ll find it easier to befriend someone who is already the friend of a friend. “Triadic closure”
  • Because money permits a constant stream of luxuries and indulgences, it can take away their savor, and by permitting instant gratification, money shortcuts the happiness of anticipation. Scrimping, saving, imagining, planning, hoping—these stages enlarge the happiness we feel.
  • Neither a scientist nor a philosopher but a novelist, Lisa Grunwald, came up with the most brilliant summation of this happiness principle: “Best is good, better is best.”
  • Satisficers (yes, satisficers) are those who make a decision or take action once their criteria are met. That doesn’t mean they’ll settle for mediocrity; their criteria can be very high, but as soon as they find the hotel, the pasta sauce, or the business card that has the qualities they want, they’re satisfied. Maximizers want to make the optimal decision. Even if they see a bicycle or a backpack that meets their requirements, they can’t make a decision until after they’ve examined every option, so they can make the best possible choice. Studies suggest that satisficers tend to be happier than maximizers. Maximizers spend a lot more time and energy to reach a decision, and they’re often anxious about whether they did in fact make the best choice.
  • I wanted to strengthen myself so I’d have the fortitude to face the worst, if (i.e., when) I had to. To achieve this, the great religious and philosophic minds urge us to think about death. As the Buddha counseled, “Of all mindfulness meditations, that on death is supreme.”
  • But having just finished an account by a prostate cancer survivor made me feel far more kindly to my own body. Instead of feeling perpetually dissatisfied with my weight, I should delight in feeling vital, healthy, pain-free, fear-free.
  • “There are times in the lives of most of us,” observed William Edward Hartpole Lecky, “when we would have given all the world to be as we were but yesterday, though that yesterday had passed over us unappreciated and unenjoyed.”
  • Research shows that because we measure ourselves relative to others, our happiness is influenced by whether we compare ourselves to people who are better or worse off. In one study, people’s sense of life satisfaction changed dramatically depending on whether they completed sentences starting “I’m glad I’m not . . .” or instead, “I wish I was . . .”
  • Gratitude is important to happiness. Studies show that consistently grateful people are happier and more satisfied with their lives;
  • Fourth Splendid Truth: You’re not happy unless you think you’re happy. Then it struck me that the Fourth Splendid Truth has a corollary: You’re happy if you think you’re happy.
  • Laughter is more than just a pleasurable activity. It can boost immunity and lower blood pressure and cortisol levels. It increases people’s tolerance for pain. It’s a source of social bonding, and it helps to reduce conflicts and cushion social stress within relationships—at work, in marriage, among strangers. When people laugh together, they tend to talk and touch more and to make eye contact more frequently.
  • One fact of human nature is that people have a “negativity bias”: we react to the bad more strongly and persistently than to the comparable good.
  • Studies show that distraction is a powerful mood-altering device, and contrary to what a lot of people believe, persistently focusing on a bad mood aggravates rather than palliates it.
  • You hit a goal, you keep a resolution. “Run a marathon” makes a good goal. It’s specific, it’s easy to measure success, and once you’ve done it, you’ve done it. “Sing in the morning” and “Exercise better” are better cast as resolutions. You won’t wake up one day and find that you’ve achieved it. It’s something that you have to resolve to do every day, forever.

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