Brain Pickings

The Happiness Project: Gretchen Rubin Spends a Year in Pursuit


A year’s worth of ideas, inspiration and innovation from culture’s collective brain.

Last week, we looked at Charles Spearin’s music-meets-philosophy experiment, The Happiness Project. Turns out, perhaps due to the universal relevance of the subject matter, that it has a doppelganger.

One rainy afternoon in 2006, New York magazine writer Gretchen Rubin was sitting on the bus, having one of those inevitable-for-everyone epiphanies about the fleeting nature of life, the importance of savoring the moment, and all that jazz. But instead of shrugging it off as a contrived existential truism, Rubin decided to undertake an ambitious task: To test the multitude of theories about what makes us happy, from ancient philosophies to pop culture prescriptions to the latest scientific studies, and to write about the experience. Her blog, clever and wryly written, full of weekly happiness tips, quickly struck a cultural chord and was syndicated across a slew of cultural merit validators — Slate, Yahoo, The Huffington Post, even Psychology Today.

Today, the blog congeals as The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun — a wonderfully engaging memoir chronicling the project.

With its eloquent charisma and wit, the book successfully dodges the preachiness bullet, offering instead a captivating journey into the greatest human pursuit and the many, often crazy, ways in which we go about attaining that elusive holy grail. Both enlightening and entertaining, it’s the kind of read that takes you on a relentlessly fun ride and drops you off at a place of great insight, leaving you to marvel at how you got there without trekking through a jungle of discomfort and doubt.

For us, The Happiness Project is solid proof of our own credo: Do something out of passion and curiosity, and the rest — the syndication, the cultural traction, the “success” — will follow. The best cultural artifacts — the most compelling art, the smartest books, the most interesting films — didn’t begin with a business model, they began with a great idea, which in turn came from exploring the fringes of curiosity.

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The Moment Jars


A timecapsule of human existence, or what childbirth and a moose have in common.

We all have those moments — the rare ones so saturated with personal significance and impact, so rich in meaning and relevance that we want to savor them, to save them, to put them in a jar. The Moment Jars offers just that — a lovely record of being human.

The brainchild of four creatives from the advertising and design industries — writer Mark Freid, designers Jeff Matz and Paul Mastriani, and illustrator Kim Foxbury — the project is a digital repository for people’s most monumental moments, offered without context or explanation in their rawest, purest form.

Candid and deeply personal, the moments range from the questionable (shooting a moose) to the mundane yet inexplicably memorable (a foggy day in San Diego) to the expected (lots of babies, lots of first kisses). The latter — an overwhelming majority — strip life of its pretense and illustrate a simple truth: The moments we often dismiss as the most contrived cliches are actually the ones that move us most powerfully and memorably

The Moment Jars is a bittersweet reminder that even the best of moments pass us by, living on only as ephemeral ghosts in the treasure chest of our memory.

The team (of The Wishing Machine fame) is immortalizing the moments in a limited-edition 22-page illustrated book, which you can buy right here.

You can also add your own moment to the chronological archive of several hundred jars, with moments dating as far back as 1920.

via Swiss Miss

Correction: We got a lovely note of gratitude from Mark, who kindly pointed out that the book is actually based on a short story he’d written some time ago titled, unsurprisingly, The Moment Jars. The team is, however, toying with the idea of doing more with the moments people submitted and considering another book based on them.

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Music Meets Philosophy: The Happiness Project


Neighborly wisdom, music innovation, and the extraordinariness of ordinary human speech.

We’ve long been fascinated by the concept and origin of happiness. Which is why we love Broken Social Scene multi-instrumentalist Charles Spearin‘s The Happiness Project — a series of interviews with Spearin’s neighbors on the subject of happiness, deconstructed into the melodic, sing-song quality of speech. Spearin’s inspiration came from the insight that the movement of our lips and tongue, the rising and falling of our voices as voice our thoughts, isn’t something we normally pay attention to, except in the context of explicit music. And yet this cadence is so rich in implicit melody.

The natural cadence of people’s speech can sometimes carry beautiful melodies.

After each interview, Spearin would listen to the recordings, examining both their meaning and their melody. He then invited a few musician friends to play, as closely as they could, these natural melodies on different instruments — from the tenor saxophone to the harp to Spearin’s own daughter on the violin — and then arranged them just as he would’ve songs.

Meaning seems to be our hunger but we should still try to taste our food. I wanted to see if I could blur the line between speaking and singing — life and art? — and write music based on these accidental melodies.

The result was The Happiness Project album — a fascinating experiment in music innovation, infused with the substance of everyday philosophy.

If you can take a bunch of people and just put them in a situation where they’re kind of comfortable, get them to talk about a nice subject like happiness, and then their wisdom shines a little bit more.

It’s one of our favorite music projects of 2009, so we thought it fitting to feature right before the holidays.

Grab a free download of Anna, the second track from The Happiness Project, and elevate your every conversation by drinking in the simple melodic wisdom of human speech.

Thanks, Michal

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Gift Guide Part 3: Free


DIY goodness, intellectual enrichment, and how to go cheap without being cheap.

This is the final installment in the curated 3-part Brain Pickings holiday gift guide. Today, we’re saluting thrift and last-minuteness with five priceless yet free gifts that show off your creative connoisseurship without making a dent in your wallet.


itunes.gifEveryone loves a good mixtape. But, let’s face it, it isn’t the most original — or, for that matter, the most intellectually enriching — of gifts. So why not put a personal growth spin on the cultural classic? iTunes is actually a fantastic resource for free podcasts and lectures from the world’s best universities, across a multitude of disciplines. Show off your eclectic yet refined taste by burning your giftee a mix of selected episodes from a few smart podcasts — think part sampler, part mixtape, part gift certificate to self-improvement.

Here are a few of our favorites to get you started:

Perfect for: Lifelong learners, personal growth fiends, the eclectically curious


We sung the praises of nothing a while ago, and it’s still one of the best gifts out there. It’s cheap, but you aren’t — it’s a clever and tongue-in-cheek choice that serves as a powerful antidote to our culture of excess. Your socially-conscious friends will appreciate it, and they won’t have to regift it along with that bizarre snow globe from grandma.

Perfect for: The environmentally concerned, those with a good conscience and good sense of humor


Here’s a wonderful DIY gift that’s both super cool and doable even with the craft skill level of a six-year-old — cork photo coasters.

All you need: Some photos, a pen, an X-acto knife, a few very, very basic art supplies and sheets of cork. Depending on your choice of photos, you can make the coasters artsy or personal, but either way, they’re bound to delight — not to mention save a coffeetable or two from those dreaded mug circles.

Perfect for: Everyone


Ah, the paper fortuneteller — what a fond childhood memory. But, if you’re like us, your adult self couldn’t make one to save your life. Thankfully, the good folks at eHow have put together a simple how-to video that revives this nostalgic gem.

Ramp up the cool factor by getting creative with the paper itself and/or slipping in a few clever, inside-jokey fortunes.

Perfect for: Retrostalgics, the kid at heart, those who value personal, non-generic gifts


Yes, we’re being shamelessly self-promotional — but that’s only because we fervently believe in our mission, and there’s no shame in that.

Brain Pickings aims to enrich people’s creative and intellectual scope by taking them on a curated journey into the great creative unknown — because we believe indiscriminate curiosity and exposure to cross-disciplinary interestingness fuels our inner capacity for creativity. So tickle a friend’s brain by introducing them to Brain Pickings — you can sign them up for our newsletter for a sampler, or just send them a simple note/email with our URL.

Inspired information is, after all, the greatest gift of all. So who cares if it doesn’t come in giftwrap and a red ribbon?

Perfect for: Everyone — especially the chronically curious, those immersed in creative culture

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