HEALTH

Book reviews of "The Happiness Project," "Bluebird" and "Women, Work & the Art of Savoir Faire"

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By Elizabeth Chang
Sunday, February 7, 2010

THE HAPPINESS PROJECT

By Gretchen Rubin

Harper. 301 pp. $25.99

BLUEBIRD

Women and the New Psychology of Happiness

By Ariel Gore

Farrar Straus Giroux. 196 pp. $24

WOMEN, WORK & THE ART OF SAVOIR FAIRE

Business Sense & Sensibility

By Mireille Guiliano

Atria. 261 pp. $24.99

The happiness of American women was called into question recently by a study titled "The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness." Societal advances, the authors suggest, have not made women happier. I found the ensuing debate puzzling because, as far as I can tell, the study revealed only that women today are less likely to say they are happy. But if you're fretting about your happiness level, here are three books to boost your mood. These are not for anyone suffering a crisis or depression; in fact, they are not for anyone who is unhappy at all. They are for vaguely discontented women who sit on buses and suddenly think, "Hey, I'm not happy enough."

That's exactly how Gretchen Rubin started her "Happiness Project." Once she realized she did not appreciate her wonderful life -- husband, children, health -- she set out to change her attitude. She defined happiness ("To be happy, I need to think about feeling good, feeling bad and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth"), designed a chart to monitor her progress and assigned a goal to each month. In March, for example, the month to "Aim Higher," she started a blog on The Post's sister site Slate.com; that effort ended at the close of last year, but her postings continue on her own blog. The blog and book weave reports of her efforts -- de-cluttering her house, trying not to nag, tackling a new skill and imitating a spiritual master -- with analysis of other possible routes to happiness. The result is an easy, sometimes entertaining read, though the navel-gazing can be off-putting. But if you like hearing the details of someone else's vague discontent ("I wanted to save all these mementos . . . but I didn't know where to put them"), relish keeping charts, are game to try singing in the morning and think adding more chores to your life will increase your happiness, well, then, this book is perfect.

Writer and journalist Ariel Gore delved into the issue of happiness when she learned that a Positive Psychology course is very popular at Harvard. She takes a more intellectual approach than Rubin does. In "Bluebird," Gore lays out some theories of happiness and relates a history of American attitudes about happiness and the effects those attitudes have had on women. She then dissects the epidemic of female depression and the current think-yourself-happy mania, casts a critical eye on recent studies and looks at strategies to increase happiness, though less earnestly than Rubin. A chapter about a convention of happiness scientists drags, and Gore, who now has her own blog on the Psychology Today Web site, can switch abruptly from being forthright and skeptical to scarily maudlin: "I'm writing this book as a living breathing love letter to you." But her research is absorbing, her idea of happiness as a dynamic force is appealing, and her conclusions seem sensible. For example, she writes that we can undo the negative results of bad times by "meeting our experiences with good humor, by actively seeking positive emotional experiences on the heels of our stress-fests or, at the very least, by allowing ourselves time to relax and imagine how our crappy day might fit into a larger, less crappy, context." If the idea of singing in the morning makes your head hurt, this is the one for you.

Mireille Guiliano could not be more of a contrast to these women; one cannot picture her being even vaguely discontented. In "Women, Work and the Art of Savoir Faire," she wants to help women achieve more than business success: She wants to help them be happy and live a good life. She says, "That's why I dare to talk about style and clothes and food and wine and entertaining and life in a business book." The book is written in the same bright and breezy style as her "French Women Don't Get Fat," and the former Veuve Clicquot executive offers some nuggets of hard-nosed counsel, such as to work for a winning company and seek positions in accounting or finance that are more likely to lead to the chief executive suite than those in human resources or communications. Such strategies, however, are undermined by the rather retro savoir-faire advice: wear a light, fresh scent; a little black dress is essential; cloth napkins are a must for entertaining. And she provides recipes. Un peu bizarre.

The route to happiness requires a lot of little steps. But you already know the recommended maneuvers: "Count your blessings," "Take care of yourself," "Love what you do." In other words, maybe all you have to do to be happy is listen to your parents.

Elizabeth Chang is an editor of The Post's Sunday Magazine.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company

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