“The Happiness Project”

April 6, 2010 at 1:22 pm | Posted in Nonfiction | 8 Comments

Stunt nonfiction is something I’ve always loved, but didn’t know the term until I read The Happiness Project.  I did my own stunt of reading 500 books last year, and I’ve read books on cooking through Julia Child, reading the entire encyclopedia and the Oxford English Dictionary, and who knows how many more.  Surely the idea of spending a year trying to be happier must be the most sensible of these.

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Gretchen Rubin grapples with some challenges during her project:  Other people tell her that thinking about her own happiness will actually make her unhappy, that it’s irresponsible to feel happy when other people in the world are suffering, and that her specific strategies are dumb.  This is some pretty heavy stuff.  I agree with her, though, that being happier makes us more likely to help others (and vice versa), that it is possible to teach ourselves new skills to improve our happiness and well-being, and that it’s valuable to everyone to do so.  I’m already thinking out what my own happiness project will be.

The section of the book that caught my attention the most, though, was under the month of November: Give Positive Reviews.  That’s what I try to do here, and sometimes I find others are not receptive to this.  I’ve actually been asked why I liked a book that someone else hated – more than once.  Is it really offensive to find that someone liked something you didn’t?

Why was it so deliciously satisfying to criticize?  Being critical made me feel more sophisticated and intelligent – and in fact, studies show that people who are critical are often perceived to be more discerning.  In one study, for example, people judged the writers of negative book reviews as more expert and competent than the writers of positive reviews, even when the content of both reviews was judged to be of high quality.  Another study showed that people tend to think that someone who criticizes them is smarter than they are…. Being critical has its advantages, and what’s more, it’s much easier to be hard to please.

So there you have it.  Try harder to enjoy things, just like I’ve always said.  Look at critical reviews with a jaundiced eye, and suspect that you may have the capacity to get more out of the criticized book than that snarky reviewer managed to do.


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  1. Hey! This book is sitting in my TBR pile; now I really want to look it over (although I suspect it might not be my cuppa). I like the term “stunt nonfiction,” although I tend to think of these types of books as either “year in the life memoirs” or “immersion journalism.”

    As for giving positive reviews, I completely, completely disagree with the idea that giving negative reviews has to be snarky or mean, or that one takes any pleasure in pointing out what they did not enjoy about a book (or anything, really). I respect your right to give positive reviews, and I respect this author’s right to indulge in year-round happiness, but I firmly believe two things: 1. sometimes, when something is wrong, people should be encouraged to state their reasoned opinions that it is so (should Vietnam War protestors have stopped being so snarky about that war, and packed up and gone home?), and 2. not EVERYONE can like EVERY book. I prefer to think of negative reviews as “not for me reviews”–again, providing reasons for why I did not care for a book. I think sometimes that provides a service, when other readers who might happen to share my opinion, can finally say, hey, I’m not the only one. That can be nice too, and it really is one of the purposes of any kind of reviewing–especially if you can find a reviewer whose style you like and understand (and therefore can follow). I disagreed with every one of Gene Siskel’s movie “pans,” but I appreciated them–it was almost 100% guaranteed that whatever movies he hated, I would love.

    Sorry for the tirade. But I am so tired of people with sometimes good and necessary questions, concerns, and even complaints, being tarred with the “negative” brush and then ignored.

    • Hi!

      I found your comment really funny for several reasons. First, I’ve read every one of your reviews for probably two years, and when I first found your blog, I went backward and read through several months. I probably add at least a third of the books you mention to my own TBR. And quite often, it was something you didn’t like and maybe didn’t even finish! So that’s funny. *I* would *never* ignore you.

      Of course I agree with you about the importance of dissent. I think most people, though, are far more likely to kvetch and complain and snark about trivial things and do nothing at all about the serious, important things. I’d much rather people save their critical energies for tackling substantive social change.

      I agree with you as well that not everyone can like every book. I do think it’s somewhat pointless to read when no book ever seems to satisfy. If it’s been a long time since a person has been absorbed in or fascinated by a book, is it due to reading the wrong things or a lack of some attentiveness on the reader’s part? My main point, though, is that I find it odd when people criticize me for enjoying something they didn’t enjoy. It’s one thing to take the negative angle, but to insist that others do it as well is more effort than I would want to exert if it were me.

      Anyway, I can’t help liking what I like. When I don’t particularly care for something, I don’t want to spend time reviewing it, either, because I’d rather move on to something I will like better. Thanks to you for providing the service you do, because certainly there’s no time to waste on boring, lousy books.

  2. This is going to be my new happiness project: recognize when something is a hot button issue for you, and cool down. 🙂 If you can’t tell I worked at a job for too many years where I was branded “negative” anytime I asked a fairly basic workflow or really, any kind of question. Very frustrating.

    Your point about true dissent vs. petty kvetching is well-taken and very, very true. I forget about petty kvetching because, as someone who worked in customer service for many, many years, I always pledged to try and avoid petty kvetching myself. I do pretty well with that, and it does make me happy–outside of the worries everyone has about health, money, and the future, I’m really lucky and happy.

    And perhaps that’s why I don’t need this book! I did read large parts of it last night, and although it didn’t really grab me, there were parts of it that made me chuckle (I loved her first line: “I’d always vaguely expected to outgrow my limitations.”). And I would never try to talk you out of liking it!

    Thanks to YOU for the good review and interesting discussion.

    • We should do it more often! I’ll tell you the opposite side of the coin: if you go out of your way to pose constructive comments and observations about your workplace in a *positive* manner, everyone will say you’re irrelevant, spacey, and out of it! I think we’ve both found that the conventional workplace wants very much to stay that way.

  3. Interesting how she says that being critical can make you seem more intelligent. Scary how we can unconsciously do things like that.

    I try to post what I thought of every book I read, good or bad, but I do enjoy posting the positive reviews so much more. Writing the negative reviews make me feel more negative. I love though when I find someone who loved something that I hated, or that someone hated what I loved! The books that claim to be written for everyone scare me a little bit 😉 Also, I will sometimes find myself picking up a book that someone else hated simply because what they disliked I think I would like.

  4. I saw the nice mention of my book, The Happiness Project, here! I very much appreciate those kind words and you shinning a spotlight on my work!! Thanks and best wishes,

    • *swoon* I always get so excited when authors comment on my page!

  5. Wonderful post – very thoughtful. I also appreciate the discussion in the comments. I am curious about this Happiness Book and have put it on my wishlist.

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