The Happiness Project And The Sad Side of Happiness

By Guest Blogger Gretchen Rubin

I have studied happiness for many years. I think everyone could benefit from a happiness project.


But there’s also a sad side to a happiness project, which comes directly from the first and most important of my Twelve Commandments: “Be Gretchen.”

Many of the things that have brought me happiness since I started my Happiness Project came directly from my attempt to do a better job of “Being Gretchen.” For example, this blog. My children’s literature book group. My Boy Castaways of Black Lake Island project.

But being Gretchen, and accepting my true likes and dislikes, also means that I have to face the fact that I will never visit a jazz club at midnight, or hang out in artists’ studios, or jet off to Paris for the weekend, or pack up to go fly-fishing on a spring dawn. I won’t be admired for my chic wardrobe or be appointed to a high government office. I love fortune cookies and refuse to try foie gras.


Now, you might think – “Well, okay, but why does that make you sad? You don’t want to visit a jazz club at midnight anyway, so why does it make you sad to know that you don’t want to do that? If you wanted to, of course you could.”

It makes me sad for two reasons. First, it makes me sad to realize my limitations. The world offers so much!–and I am too small to appreciate it. The joke in law school was: “The curse of Yale Law School is to try to die with your options open.” Which means — at some point, you have to pursue one option, which means foreclosing other options, and to try to avoid that is crazy. Similarly, to be Gretchen means to let go of all the things that I am not — to acknowledge what I don’t encompass.


But it also makes me sad because, in many ways, I wish I were different. One of my Secrets of Adulthood is “You can choose what you do, but you can’t choose what you like to do.” I have a lot of notions about what I WISH I liked to do, of the subjects and occupations that I wish interested me. But it doesn’t matter what I wish I were like. I am Gretchen.

Once I realized this, I saw that this problem is quite more widespread. A person wants to teach high school, but wishes he wanted to be a banker. Or vice versa. A person has a service heart but doesn’t want to put it to use. Someone wants to be a stay-at-home mother but wishes she wanted to work; another person wants to work but wishes she wanted to be a stay-at-home mother. And it’s possible — in fact quite easy — to construct a life quite unrelated to our nature.

People judge us; we judge ourselves.

And the Happiness Project makes me sad for another reason. Just as I must “Be Gretchen” and accept myself, strengths and weaknesses both, I must also accept everyone around me. This is most true of my immediate family.

It’s very hard not to project onto your children everything you wish they would be. “You should be more friendly,” “You would love to be able to play the piano, why don’t you practice?” “Don’t be scared.”

And it’s even harder to accept your spouse. A friend told me that her mantra for marriage was “I love Leo, just as he is.” I remind myself of this constantly. I wish the Big Man got a big kick out of decorating the apartment for the holidays and that he was more eager to pass out gold stars, and sometimes it makes me sad to realize that he won’t ever be that way. I’m sure he wishes that I were eager to go camping and that I had a more peacable nature. But I love him just the way he is, and I’m a lot happier when I don’t expect him to change. The fact is, we can change no one but ourselves.


That’s another paradox of happiness: I want to “Be Gretchen,” yet I also want to change myself for the better.

Now, you might say again, “Why does all this make you sad? Rejoice in what you are; be authentic,” etc., etc. But it does make me feel sad sometimes. It does.


About Gretchen Rubin


Gretchen Rubin is the author of several books, including the #1 New York Times and international bestseller, The Happiness Project—an account of the year she spent test-driving the wisdom of the ages, the current scientific studies, and the lessons from popular culture about how to be happier. On her popular blog, The Happiness Project, she reports on her daily adventures in the pursuit of happiness.


In her next book, Happier at Home, Rubin embarks on a new project to explore how to make home a happier place. Starting in September (the new January), Gretchen dedicates a school year—from September through May—to concentrating on the factors that matter most for home, such as possessions, marriage, time, parenthood, body, neighborhood. The book’s title was inspired by a line from Samuel Johnson: “To be happy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition.”

Rubin has emerged as one of the most thought-provoking and influential writers on happiness to have emerged from the recent explosion of interest in the subject. Though her conclusions are sometimes counter-intuitive—for example, she finds that true simplicity is far from simple to attain, and that used rightly, money can do a lot to buy happiness—her insights resonate with readers of all backgrounds.

Response to Rubin’s writing on happiness has been overwhelming. The Happiness Project is more than books and a blog, it’s a movement. Happiness Project groups have sprung up across the country—and across the world. Rights to The Happiness Project have been sold for more than 35 territories. The Happiness Project was even an answer on the game-show Jeopardy!

A graduate of Yale and Yale Law School, where she was Editor-in-Chief of the Yale Law Journal and winner of the Edgar M. Cullen Prize, Rubin started her career in law, and she was clerking for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor when she realized she really wanted to be a writer.

Raised in Kansas City, she lives in New York City with her husband and two daughters.

I love Gretchen’s candid and honest take on the paradox of happiness. And so I ask you: Do you ever wish you were different? Does who you are ever bring you sadness, when in fact, it should bring you happiness? What do you know about your happiness?



  1. I WISH I was the type of person who did not worry as much as I did, who didn’t get consumed with bad thoughts and fears, and I wish I could just leave for Paris for the weekend…. I wish I was okay with going to Vegas with my husband without worrying SO MUCH about leaving the kids behind, and should we take two different planes… just in case? there is a lot I wish I could change about myself, but overall, I love myself and all my craziness.

  2. I loved this spin on happiness. I have to say I nodded my head throughout the entire post. I related to mostly everything you said. I don’t know what the answer is. Sometimes I accept my faults and accept that I am who I am, and sometimes I get frustrated with my limitations. I guess you can say I’m on the fence!

  3. We have to not only be happy with who we are and who we are not. For me, the secret is to focus on what makes me happy about being me. I won’t be on stage shaking it like Beyonce but I’m perfectly happy with that. I enjoy what makes you you but I really enjoy what makes me – me. In short, great post. 🙂

  4. Have you ever soon the brilliant movie “Shadowlands?” It is about the life of C.S. Lewis played ny Anthony Hopkins. In it the theme of happiness and sadness going hand in hand is explored. At the end, Antyhony Hopkins has a little speech which starts “the pain now is part of the happiness then” and goes on to share the characters views on what he has learnt in his life. It is very moving and totally thought provoking and links to your point here.

  5. Hi Gretchen Rubin,
    I do like this happiness post ! It real make me happy. I just visit & begin to read this post & I come true to understand real happiness post. Thanks for this post Gretchen Rubin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.