Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Happiness Project

by Gretchen Rubin
New York, Harper Collins, 2009

Week 22    Memoir

When I was twelve we moved to a new town across the state from the town where all four of us had been born. One day, several months after we moved, I saw my normally happy and self-assured mother sprawled across the bed sobbing. I stood and watched her for awhile, and then backed away and crept down the stairs. I pondered over that scene for quite a while until I asked her about it. She said that she was so unhappy after the move, missing her friends and her connections in our old town. At that moment I got an insight into my mother I had just taken for granted. My mother’s happiness depended not only upon our Dad and us, but on her friends. They were the ones that gave her strength and made her happy.

Many of us have sung the words, “Is that all there is?” Gretchen Rubin actually did something about it. She set out not to change her life circumstances so much as to assure the happiness of the circumstances she was in. Luckily, she didn’t have to change her basic circumstances, just her discontent. She had a good marriage, delightful children, a lovely home, and a good career. And more importantly, she recognized those blessings at the outset of her project. However, she did feel that she could find ways to alleviate the vague sense of unease and aggravation that she constantly felt as well as a feeling that life was passing her by.

Like all good left-brained people, she read up on the subject, set some goals and resolutions, made some affirmations, and began a year long project to make sure her life remained happy. She read a lot of books about happiness, picked a model, St. Therese, analyzed her happiness and discontents, created twelve commandments for behavior, and some secrets of adulthood. Then, she divided her resolutions up over the twelve months, and spent the year writing and blogging about the project. The result is the book, The Happiness Project, and an ongoing blog

The beauty of this book is that Gretchen Rubin doesn’t tell you what to do to become happier; she just tells you what she did and quotes readers of her blog as they recount what they did. Along the way she discovered four splendid truths of happiness that she will continue to try to live by:
1) If I want to be happier, I need to look at my life and think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right in an atmosphere of growth.
2) One of the best ways to make myself happy is to make other people happy. One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy myself.
3) The days are long, but the years are short.
4) If I think I’m happier, I am happier.

This book fits into a genre that is filling up: books people write about taking on projects. The Year of Living Biblically, which I read earlier in the year, fits this category as well. The interview I cite at the end of this entry talks about three books written this year about women and happiness. Apparently, this is another genre of book that is big on the scene.

I have to say that although the book got a bit tedious toward the end, I really appreciated her journey and spent a great deal of time talking about and thinking about her commandments, her truths, and her happiness project as they applied to me. As she says at the outset, each person’s happiness project will be different. I am certainly at a different place in my life than Gretchen Rubin was when she began her project, but I found much to gain by thinking about what makes me happy and what I can do to make myself happier during this time of my life. This blog, of course, is one attempt, and I have to say that reading these books, thinking about these books, and writing about these books has made me very happy. Another discovery I made as I was listing things that make me happy is that I really like to cook a nice meal. In talking with a friend the other day, she said that after her kids left home, she can’t stand to cook any more. I guess I am just the opposite. I love to think about, plan, and cook the next meal. To each his own happiness.

Gretchen Rubin’s blog is as interesting as her book. Yesterday she interviewed the sociologist Richard Florida. In that interview, he mentioned three happiness killers which I found valuable:
“There are three happiness killers - doing work you do not love and are not passionate about, surrounding yourself with people who you do not really like (someone who just fills time), and living somewhere that does not let you be you. Just stop it. Life is far too short. Also, materialism. We know that experiences matter so much more to happiness than material goods, stop the madness. That's why your place, community or neighborhood is so important - it is not just where you live. It is the center-piece or should I say center-place of your experiences.”

As I close this entry, I can’t help but wonder what Barbara Ehrenreich, whose book, Bright Sided, I read earlier this year, would think about Gretchen Rubin. I think that she would say that Gretchen is naïve—but in a good way! Ehrenreich might also side with a blogger, Rebecca Traister, with her blog entry, "Screw Happiness." In it she says:
“Here is what I have deduced so far both from my experiences and from the hissed warnings of those who propel me toward their idea of happiness and simultaneously warn me it will never really be attainable: There will be peaks -- falling in love, seeing new places, enjoying whatever form a family takes, drinking a beer on a warm night, seeing a baseball team win a long coveted pennant. And there will be valleys -- divorces and illnesses, joblessness and money trouble, watching those you love in pain, a ninth inning playoff loss. In those valleys, I'm not sure that it's happiness we first strive for, but rather the power to not get stuck, to move toward just slightly higher ground. A spot within view of a peak will often do just as nicely as a seat atop it.”

Well folks, until next time, be happy. :)

I really like the review that appeared in The Christian Science Monitor:
Here is an interview in The Daily Beast of three authors of books about happiness, Gretchen Rubin’s included. It is enlightening and adds greatly to the conversation.
This is Gretchen Rubin’s blog:

1 comment:

Gretchen said...

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,