I hesitated on reading this book. The word “happiness” turned me off. I wouldn’t call myself cynical or world weary, but the word “happiness” feels a little too basic, a little too foofy, a little too indulgent, a little too optimistic. “Happiness” is the most fundamental term for our universal human pursuit. But it feels like a child’s word. The whole spectrum of our adult emotional comprehension distilled down to a smiley face.
The author Gretchen Rubin wisely addressed the squeamishness of the word “happiness” right in the beginning of the book. It does feel indulgent to focus on our happiness. Especially as a regimented, scholastic sort of endeavor. Doesn’t the real world, our obligations, our lack of time, our daily routine, stand in the way of these sorts of questions about happiness? And also, presumably as an adult, shouldn’t we already know ourselves well enough by now?
But she’s right. It’s a subject ripe for discussion, especially as we are collectively reeling from our post consumerist bubble. Maybe those big houses, big TVs and big cars weren’t the answer. If you aren’t particularly “unhappy,” with your house, your family, your job, your life, what can you do to make it “better?” Not all of us can, or wish to, abandon our lives and run off to Europe or South America to “rediscover” ourselves. So her plan was to work her year-long happiness project into her normal life.
I like that she modeled her project after Ben Franklin’s Thirteen Virtues, but adjusted them to fit her objectives. I can get behind practical application as opposed to foofy esoteric pondering. One of the subjects for her very first month totally rang my bell: Dealing with clutter. Visual clutter from items not in their place, nagging tasks that cause guilt and mental distress, general chaos and disorder. All that shit makes me crazy. Even after all our downsizing, we still have too much stuff in our tiny little apartment. Items get left out because they don’t have homes, especially in the kitchen. I never stopped to think about how much clutter and disorder weighs on me. As soon as I saw it articulated in the books pages, the clutter I live with made me a little crazier. Victory?
I kept reading through the next chapters. I appreciated her honesty, even while it stunned me occasionally. She spoke frankly about her unpleasant habits, like conversational one-upmanship, sniping at her husband, and her bursts of temper. I occasionally had a hard time trying to relate to her life in New York City. She had discussions about her kids or her husband where I drifted a little. She spoke of downtime activities she enjoyed, like reading magazines or watching TV. I made mental substitutions for my own favorite activities, and I filled in my own city and relationships.
I took notes as I read through the chapters, especially when she hit one of my nails right on the head. The concept of needing gold stars (doing something for recognition instead of doing it for myself) how glowing alarm clocks and cold feet make it harder to sleep (literally cold feet, not metaphoric cold feet), and accepting what you actually find fun, instead of wishing you found something fun. I don’t find watching sports on TV fun. Any sports. Not even Timbers games. Especially in bars. And I don’t actually even wish that I found it fun. I realize it’s fun for other people to watch sports on TV. It’s as fun for me as stabbing myself in the ears. I’m really not even sorry about it.
While the whole book was about her experiences with this project, told through stories and day-to-day examples, I was glad she didn’t have an overpowering “voice.” I didn’t feel an enormous ego behind the words even though it was her personal journey. She never got too foofy, and didn’t wander too far into any spiritual or emotional discussions, which I had feared in the beginning. I liked that she was pragmatic and she was checking her tasks off as she progressed from month to month. She spoke a lot about research she had done, and she mentions some authors and books. I’m inclined towards footnotes, so I wish she had included her sources when she says, “Research shows that if we hold a hug for at least six seconds, we optimize the flow of mood-boosting chemicals.” Harvard Medical School? Or Cosmopolitan magazine?
I’m glad I read this book. It would be right up my alley to create a list of virtues for me to concentrate on. Years ago, I attempted Ben Franklin’s virtues. Now, even if it’s not for self improvement, it would be smart to know my own my annoyance triggers. She talks about identifying the problem. Nagging tasks, household and mental clutter, piles of mail, manipulative people, imposed obligations, paralyzing details. This is a partial list, of course. Just having a level of awareness helps resolve these types of things. It’s like telling my brain to “use your words.”
I personally have been lucky to indulge in some rather large life changes in the pursuit of happiness. Rather than staying in our apartment, our jobs, our city, our life, we’re going to do something new. These “big” changes are unlikely to bring happiness on their own. I think it takes awareness also. On a small scale. New places or new experiences don’t inherently cause growth or happiness, unless you bring it with you.
Her point was to seek internal changes, knowing not all of us can make huge external changes. Trying to happy is a life long endeavor, regardless of how involved we are with the process. If you want to be more involved, this is a good book to read.