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“Give Positive Reviews”

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One very popular popularizer of positive psychology (as opposed to academicians like Martin Seligman) is Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project: On Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun. In her penultimate chapter, one of the goals she sets herself is to “give positive reviews.” It seems to be part of a strategy played out in her final pages to upend possible criticisms of her own book. I’ve really never seen a writer do this so blatantly.

I am not going to obey her, though I want to say that her book was not as bad as I thought it would be. There’s plenty of practical advice in it that’s perfectly good on one level. Rubin even gives the book a veneer of self-criticism here and there, and she doesn’t present herself as perfect. She qualifies things and even notes that “Happiness doesn’t always make you feel happy” (79). I liked that she didn’t sell her intelligence short by being really simplistic, though it can’t be avoided completely in this kind of book. And I truly liked her focus on the ordinary. This is one piece of “stunt nonfiction” that doesn’t take us off to a war zone or an exotic adventure. It’s rooted in the home, which I found appealing. In that way, others truly could use her as an example for their lives if they wanted to, at least in bits and pieces.

Yet, one of the main things that kept slapping me in the face as I read this book is that Gretchen Rubin is basically a very wealthy and well-educated woman who threw her career over to become a housewife with a boatload of resources and time at her fingertips. I don’t want to judge her negatively for that fact, but none of this is presented particularly honestly; rather it is skirted. It’s not that she lies exactly, but nowhere does she mention the fact that her father-in-law is Robert Rubin, former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury and someone reputed to have received more than $126 million in cash and stock during his eight post-government years as an executive at Citigroup. Before he worked in the government, he was a member of the Board and Co-Chairman of Goldman Sachs; lord knows how much money he made there.

To me, this matters. I like to know who I’m taking advice from and how her circumstances are likely to affect the advice she gives.

Not that the Rubins are not good people. Robert Rubin, though a very wealthy man, is a Democrat, and web sources note that one reason he gives for that is that the world is not just and that not everyone has the same opportunities that he had and has. He feels that Democratic social policies contribute to a more fair nation. So, he is interested in social justice, and I appreciate that kind of philosophical generosity in a rich man.

I don’t know if Gretchen shares her father-in-law’s concern. In one odd little aside, she notes that “I … accepted my idiosyncratic reluctance to read any book (or see any play or movie) that centers on the theme of unjust accusation. I was never going to be able to force myself to read Oliver Twist, Othello, To Kill a Mockingbird, Atonement, A Passage to India, Burmese Days, Crime and Punishment, or Arthur and George if I could avoid it—and that was okay” (229-30). Certainly not all of these books are about class and racial injustice, but most of them are. Though Rubin said nothing else on this topic, this one sentence revealed to me a huge willingness for her to ignore whole realms of dire experience and certainly a lack of interest in how the other half lives.

The first thing that made me feel right away that something was wrong in Happiness Project-land was that I couldn’t imagine how anyone would ever have the time to spend on all these little projects that Rubin describes. My god, she wrote a novel in a month (NaNoWriMo style), she kept a resolutions chart; she kept a food diary and a gratitude notebook; she started a new blog that she posted on six days a week, created a huge scrapbook of clippings, established memento file boxes for each year of her children’s lives, self-published several things through, and made countless scrapbooks and photo albums for her family members. She also ran multiple reading groups, threw numerous large parties, joined an expensive new gym with a personal trainer, volunteered at the local library and her daughter’s school, cleaned out all the closets in her house, and did her sister’s Christmas shopping for her. To me this did not sound like someone with a day job.

Rubin writes of herself as having made a “career change.” She decided that, in spite of the fact that she graduated from Yale law school and clerked for Sandra Day O’Connor, the practice of law was not her thing, and so she decided to become a writer. Now, this decision for her did not imply near-starvation or long years of struggle. She speaks of working with her agent as though she is dropping off dry cleaning. Anyone could do it. She notes that after she started her blog on the Happiness Project, she was delighted to find that she had made the Technorati Top 5000 without even trying. (Yet somehow she is aware that Technorati exists.) At one point, because her husband has been diagnosed with asymptomatic Hepatitis C, she reads up on organ donation issues and then “joined the board of the New York Organ Donor Network” (291). Just like that. There is no discussion of how her connections influenced these accomplishments or whether her “career” as a writer included living off what she had made as a writer before The Happiness Project became a bestseller.

While this occurred to me in the first half of the book, the real downturn for me was Chapter 7 on “Buy Some Happiness.” This chapter was chock-a-block full of stuff that comes from a wealthy person’s perspective, even if many not-so-wealthy people also buy it. It was also full of the sentiment that although money is not the only thing that gives happiness, it is certainly a good in itself. There is no discussion whatsoever of the corrupting possibilities of money. She does, however, note that money should be spent “wisely” in order to contribute to happiness. “People at every level of income can choose to direct their spending in ways that take them closer to happiness—or not,” she claims (171). She never discusses why they don’t—why, in particular, poor people might make a lot of spending decisions that better-off folk would consider short-sighted and even destructive. This edges very near to a blame-the-victim stance. It was pretty much downhill from there.

One of the most disturbing parts to me had to be when Rubin decides in contemplating spiritual issues to read “memoirs of catastrophe,” mostly those about illness and dying. Her entire response to these memoirs is that they made her recognize how much better her life was than those of the authors or subjects of the books she read. She admits that she feels a little guilty about this, but then moves on by saying that these authors “emphasized the importance of cherishing health and appreciating ordinary life” (202). That may be true, but it still seems to me incumbent on a reader to muster some sympathy for those in terrible situations, and Rubin strikes an odd note at the end of that section when she asserts that “I don’t think these memoirs would cheer me if I’d had more brushes with serious illness” (202). She hasn’t even bothered to understand the genre enough to know how many people are comforted by knowing that they are not alone in hard times. In other words, her rather self-centered reasons for “enjoying” them are the only reasons she can conceive of.

At the end of that same chapter (8), which focuses on the need to “Contemplate the Heavens,” she trots out all the reasons why someone might resist happiness: it’s not a worthy goal (it’s self-indulgent), it is associated with a lack of intellectual rigor (it’s not “cool”), some people use unhappiness as a guilty control mechanism, and some people fear that being happy will tempt fate to bring disaster down on them. She dispatches all these arguments in a mere three and a half pages, which, I must add, she does with very little intellectual rigor. Then she notes the ultimate cause of resistance: “Happiness takes energy and discipline. It is easy to be heavy, etc.” (218).

She reiterates this at the end of Chapter 9, on “Pursue a Passion,” when she encounters a naysayer who quotes John Stuart Mill as saying, “Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so.” She dismisses this idea in exactly sixteen lines. And she concludes, “you must make the effort to take steps toward happiness” (233-34). I think about the happiness that has flooded me at completely unexpected moments, and I wonder. But there is no serious self-questioning here.

In Chapter 10, “Pay Attention,” she decides that the traditional Buddhist koans aren’t for her, but that she has some quotes that can serve the same function for her. This is a very funny section because none of her “koans” are koans at all. She spends more time contemplating the meaning of Samuel Johnson’s “He who would bring home the wealth of the Indies, must carry the wealth of the Indies with him” than she did Mill’s statement at the end of the previous chapter. Her interpretation of this statement, however, is no deeper than her dismissal of the other. All it means to her is that happiness inheres purely in the individual and not in circumstances.

In the section of Chapter 10 already mentioned above, on giving positive reviews, she notes repeatedly that it is easier to give negative ones. While some of the assertions she makes in the book about happiness are supported, at least marginally, by some scientific studies, she gives absolutely no evidence for the claim, repeated numerous times in the last few chapters, that it is easier to be negative. I myself have to say that I find writing this kind of review, where I try to be thoughtful and fair about saying even critical things, far more challenging for me than simply writing, “Oh, what a cute book. It’s so true.” I work hard for a fair and balanced critical mind, and most of the intellectuals, writers, and scholars that I know do, too.

These last few chapters of the book are filled with material seemingly designed to dismiss criticisms that Rubin seems aware may come up. Perhaps the funniest of these is that she spends numerous passages quoting from people who have posted on her blog to the effect of how much her blog helped them. How could this handful of readers of her blog be wrong? She even quotes her sister and her husband to prove that she’s become a happier and therefore better person over her year of effort. I mean, would you quote your sister or husband as proof of anything? That’s like someone in a creative writing workshop telling everyone that his mother liked his story so it must be good.

However, if the bestseller status of Rubin’s work is any indication, this strategy seems to have worked, much to my chagrin. She’s now working on a Happiness Project for children. I can’t wait to get those kids in classes I teach. It might make me cry.

Really, it’s not that I don’t want people to be happy, but I just can’t believe that this is the way. It leaves too many other important values in the dust.

2 responses »

  1. Our book club is reading this book this month. I can barely get past page 100, but I am trying. After researching positive psychology and taking a grad positive psych course, I can say there are MUCH better books out there than this one. I just cannot believe the mountain of positive reviews for it. A whole paragraph in Rubin’s book is dedicated to the fact she bought a candle for her office? Really? This is her revelation.
    I don’t know. Perhaps I am negative towards the book because I also love children’s literature, writing, blogging and party planning. Just not to her extreme. I think a great example was the birthday party she threw for Judy, her mother in law. Everything went “perfect”. I would be surprised and wonder what would happen if something actually went wrong. Would the happiness bubble collapse? Hmmm..
    I liked “Raising Happiness” by Christine Carter much better. Her tone is conversational, her tips realistic and her examples down to earth.


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