I’ve wanted to read Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project (2009) for some time. At some point in my life I came to the realization that happy is something you choose to be. We’ve all known people who, no matter what’s going right in their life, always find something to complain about. And we’ve all known people who, not matter what chaos surrounds them, seem to maintain their sunny disposition. I’m pretty sure I’ve been the former for most of my life, and seeing this in other people made me recognize it in myself. My life is far from perfect, but every day I try to focus on what makes me happy rather than what does not. I want to choose happiness.
In her year-long project, Rubin does the same thing. She was like many Americans, bogged down with the daily conflicts that come from work, marriage, and parenthood, finding herself taking for granted all that she did have. Her epiphany is that she doesn’t want to look back on her life after a catastrophe, after a devastating phone call in the middle of the night, and think, “How happy I used to be then, if only I’d realized it.” Rubin rightly acknowledges the privileges afforded to her by being able to work and having a husband to help provide for her family, but she questions whether all these things equal happiness. And, if they do, why stop there? Why not try to be happier?
Rubin sketches out resolutions for each month of the year. “Boost Energy” is the resolution for January, “Lighten Up” is set for April, “Pay Attention” for October. The book is broken up into chapters accordingly, each one telling us her efforts to fulfill that resolution, as well as her difficulties and failings to do so. In February’s resolution, “Remember Love,” Rubin realizes how much she needs praise for her actions – “gold stars” as she calls it – even as she’s hesitant to give them out to others. After staying up at night with their young daughter, Rubin snaps at her husband when he says he hopes she appreciates that he let her sleep late in the morning. But then she realizes that he needs “gold stars” too: “This exchange led me to an important insight into how to manage myself better. I’d been self-righteously telling myself that I did certain chores or made certain efforts ‘for Jamie’ or ‘for the team.’ Though this sounded generous, it led to a bad result, because I sulked when Jamie didn’t appreciate my efforts. Instead, I started to tell myself, ‘I’m doing this for myself. This is what I want.’”
Throughout the year, Rubin discovers her own happiness beliefs, what she calls her “Splendid Truths,” but she also stumbles upon nuggets of wisdom that any of us can use. During July’s resolution, “Buy Some Happiness,” she expounds on money’s and health’s effect on happiness: “When money or health is a problem, you think of little else; when it’s not a problem you don’t think much about it…the lack of them brings much more unhappiness than possessing them brings happiness.” While helping her daughter pick out a birthday cake, a task that her daughter draws out for days, she realizes that happiness has four stages: “To eke out the most happiness from an experience, we must anticipate it, savor it as it unfolds, express happiness, and recall a happy memory.” In taking multiple trips to Baskin-Robbins and pouring over their cake catalog, her daughter is doing just that. In August’s “Contemplate the Heavens,” a month in which she spends reading memoirs of catastrophe, she finds her Third Splendid Truth: “The days are long, but the years are short.” She is compelled to appreciate her young daughters’ growth – “the preciousness of ordinary life” – for it can be gone in an instant.
The Happiness Project is somewhat of a primer on psychology. Rubin doesn’t dive too deep into theories of happiness – and, if she did, we’d probably be looking at a 1,000 page book rather than a 300 page one – and, in some cases this glossing over of psychology can feel trite. But, combined with the suggested readings at the back of the book, you could easily consider this the first stop on the way to your own happiness project. I know I found inspiration here and, in some ways, this here blog is part of my happiness project – it’s a way to recollect the things that I love. I may not always be happy in the midst of working on it, but I’m always happy with the result and the effort I contribute to it – it is “challenging fun.”
I know that I am, and suspect Rubin is, as we all are, still trying to work out what happiness means for me. If you’ve never examined the power to create your own happiness, The Happiness Project is a great way to put you on that path. And even if you’ve already started down it, this book will give you some worthwhile directions to contemplate.