GRETCHEN RUBIN – The Happiness Project
“A happiness project was no magic charm.”
The above eye-opener comes in July from Gretchen Rubin, over half-way into the author’s year-long project into happiness – how to get it, how to be it, and everything else associated with making your face turn into an upward curve.
It’s actually taken me way too long to write this review. I kept reading other books, and failed to update my notes on all my read books, making me fall way behind on my reviewing. I can’t give an explanation other than to say I was lazy/uninspired, and in relation to this particular book felt it much too hard due to the vast and confusing landscape of ‘happiness project.’
I purchased this book at the end of 2013, a limited edition one that was sold through the beautiful stationary store kikki.K. It came at a time in my life when there had been a huge amount of upheaval. I was in the store shopping for Christmas presents with an almost 4 month-old baby girl, following a year that had involved a major and distressing death in the immediate family, with then the subsequent birth of our daughter. With all the ups and downs, it was hard to imagine us ever being normal again. I was hopeful, as a glass-half-full gal always is – but it was so hard to envisage us living life to the full the way we used to. A book on happiness sparked my curiosity, and besides, I was always drawn to self-help type books. We can all improve ourselves.
I was soon to discover that Rubin had divided the various paths to happiness (as she felt them to be), into 12 areas, and would allow herself to focus on one major aspect, with its various subdividing offshoots, each month. I thought, being so close to January, that I would go along on the project with her as she had done, and decided to read the chapters month by month, in so doing my own kind of year-long project analysis of my life. I wanted to take my time and think these concepts through.
This is the book I read during the span of 2014.
This was a project into happiness, but what I loved was that it gave an insight into human nature, the way we are as society, and gave me a good sense of who I really was via the questions it posed. The book was set up in 12 areas of happiness building – for example March was “Aim Higher!” with the ‘Work’ tag associated with it, and some of the goals she had outlined for that month were “enjoy the fun of failure,” “enjoy now” and “launch a blog.” (We’ll come back to that one later).
At first it seemed a little confusing, and as a novice into this field also somewhat bewildering. In her initial research into happiness, she discovered the personal principles that would help her to stay on track during her project, which also coincidentally turned out to be 12, which she called her ‘commandments.’ Then there were the ‘secrets of adulthood,’ the goofy things she had learnt over the years, and her ‘resolutions chart’ would help to keep her on track as she checked herself and her goals against it, month by month. All of this made me feel like the whole thing was awfully complicated and too-thought-out. I mean, if you want to be happy, identify the problem, figure out the solution, do the research, and go. I guess there wouldn’t have been much of a book if she had taken a simplistic approach, and also, I do empathise with the need for lists and ticking off items, as all avid-organisers and OCDers can attest to. But this was going to be one of many baffling (and awfully irritating) things about Rubin that bugged me.
Rubin’s sentiment for starting the project rang true for me. She didn’t think she was necessarily unhappy, but she did feel as if she should be happier and more appreciative of the life she led, following her lightbulb moment one day with the profound question “Is this really it?” singing out in the background.
From the get go, I immediately started to learn things and discover ways that would make my life easier, in turn making me happier. Organisation was key to happiness, with the obvious revelation that outer order does bring inner peace. This helped me to understand why I do always need to clean or sort before I start a project, because I feel scattered by things that are around and distracting me. I took on board two of her suggestions: the ‘one-minute rule’ and the ‘evening tidy up.’ The first one refers to tasks that should not be delayed if they can be done in less than one minute, and the latter is as it says, helping to give you a more relaxed and serene start to the following day, when all your crap is organised. This especially helps with kids I think, and it really made me realise that a lot of the jobs we often put off can be done quickly, when we can identify how long it will take to do it and then just do it. Take my current example of changing flat batteries in baby girl’s toys. All I really need to do is get her toys, turn them over, find out what kinds of batteries are required, go to the battery drawer and change them. That’s it. It won’t even take 5 minutes. Yet the act of putting it off will make this job seem like the hardest one yet, just by the fact of constantly delaying it.
Realistically though, we have to understand that some things will never be ticked off, and they will either be ongoing jobs or things that will create more jobs for us to do. This reminded me of an entry I read many, many years ago in Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff by Richard Carlson, where he said (and at the time it blew my world) that our ‘Inbox’ will never be empty. We’re constantly trying to get everything done, but it’s just not possible. Understanding and accepting this is one of the key things to calming down and stressing less.
I got many other ideas from Rubin, such as the ‘6 second hug,’ a hug that for that minimum time is enough to produce mood-boosting chemicals to promote bonding; having a simple thing like a candle in your office can give you a sense of peace and help you to work smarter; and when she wrote about creating traditions in the family to foster love, I couldn’t help but think of all the singing and dancing that we do with one another, as well as our special family ‘eskimo kisses’ where Hubbie, baby girl and I rub noses with one another.
In particular, one of her goals actually set me on my own journey, as just as she started her own blog in March, so too did I follow a couple of months later – bringing me to where I am today! For that I am utterly grateful for her ideas. She had come across to writing from originally clerking, and so I felt it was encouraging to me, since where she is, writing full-time, is where I want to go.
Writing related, she mentioned a self-publishing website where she was able to create a book out of the journal she kept of her daughters first 18 months. This definitely spiked my interest as I too have kept lengthy journals of the exact same thing, and also I would love to have a hard copy of my first blog which is still being (un)read out there in cyber space, as memory of my life and writings when I first started out in the blog forum.
There were so many nuggets of life and happiness wisdom that it was hard to keep up. Things like:
“Experts says that denying bad feelings intensifies them; acknowledging bad feelings allows good feelings to return.”
“Happy people don’t need to have fun… the absence of feeling bad isn’t enough to make you happy; you must strive to find sources of feeling good.”
You can gain happiness from tasks that actually don’t make you happy in the process: my recurring ones are writing and throwing parties. That was a puzzling, yet true, revelation. Also, there was the ‘arrival fallacy’ which is the assumption that when you arrive at a certain destination you’ll feel happy. What makes you happier though, is the anticipation of it (something I think often about and have touched on here). Usually reaching significant goals gives you more challenges and work (i.e. the ‘Inbox’ is never empty!) which is why it’s so important to take pleasure in the atmosphere of growth. That is the fun part.
The most challenging tasks, give you the most sense of reward and accomplishment. Harder, therefore = happier. Last year when I made up all the invitations for baby girl’s christening from scratch, little did I realise how much running around, work and preparation would be required. But when I finished the lot, boy was I proud of myself.
One of my ‘woah’ moments came when I read about the fear of failure. She said that to succeed more, we had to acknowledge that we would fail more. She calls it the ‘fun of failure’ to help counteract the dread she feels. But my favourite quote was when she referred to a friend of hers, who always says whenever crisis strikes
“this is the fun part!”
Kind of like yelling “plot twist!” when something in your life doesn’t go to plan. I LOVE IT.
However, I also discovered questions that I really didn’t find an answer to. For example, she spoke about a controversial topic – does money create happiness? Can more of it, really make you happier? This was very dependent on your experiences, and also how much you had in relation to people around you. I realised in reading that chapter that I love buying coffee out, and eating out (Food Reviews anyone?) and yet I didn’t get an answer as to why that might be. Did it make me feel good, knowing that I could buy food and drink? Was it the fact I didn’t have to make it myself? I’m still pondering that one.
And just as I couldn’t discover why I love to eat and drink out so much, so too did I struggle to work out the character behind Rubin. At first it was slightly unnerving to read her accounts of ALL the books she read on a regular basis. Early into the book she recounted at list 20 titles just on one page. Being an aspiring author, this made me totally jelly. Then with all the ongoing references to an endless amount of books and quotes, I couldn’t help but think that she planned the book really well, or just retained a stupid amount of information that I never could. For her sake, and being the organised being she is, I hope it is the former.
My love/hate with Gretchen had begun.
There were other moments that made me feel inefficient. She talked about reading a lot, as any author would, and one of her goals one month was to ‘read at whim,’ where she noted about a zillion different writers and topics. I remember thinking ‘she has two girls, right? And one of them is a year old? And she does this how?’
She wanted to read, so much more than she usually did, even though her main work centred around it… and yet she wanted more time to pursue her passions, she wanted to read more for enjoyment.
I found one explanation as to how she finds all that time to read when she said:
“We had plenty of money to do what we wanted.”
But I wanted to reach through the book and slap her when I read this, when she was taking on the challenge of writing an entire novel in the month of September:
“Writing the novel was a lot of work, but I had less trouble squeezing the writing into my day than I’d expected. Of course I had it easier than most people, since I was already a full-time writer, but even so, I had to scrimp on time otherwise spent reading newspaper and magazines, meeting people for coffee, reading for fun, or generally putting around. My blog posts became noticeably shorter.”
Did she want writers around the world to unite against her? Don’t rub salt into time-poor writers’ wounds, Gretchen.
However, my frustration with her reached boiling point when I discovered from page 255 onwards, that not only does Rubin have qualities very like a person in my life who infuriates me, but she was actually her. This was a rude shock and made me question how I could continue reading a book from someone who I didn’t have any time for in my life, let alone let them teach me about being happy. Pffft.
In this section she spoke of her realisation of interrupting others, pushing her opinions onto friends in the example of forcing clutter clearing onto them (gosh she sounds like a delight), as well as a party of other very unfavourable qualities: she was a topper – “You think you had a crazy morning, let me tell you about my morning;” she was a deflator – “You liked that movie? I thought it was kind of boring;” and she was belligerent, looking for ways to contradict what people said.
When she went on to say that her first instinct was to argue with people when a statement was made, I made the following colourful note:
‘Yes! That’s her! Why argue? Go and argue with yourself over how you’re a fucking moron. (Did she write this in secret?)’
I started to, through my new-found anger towards Rubin and resurgence of hatred towards that person in my life, discover snippets of happiness-inducing tasks in the book that could help me on my own path, and help me in dealing with my frustration at infuriating people such as this. The following two quotes made me feel better about myself, as I pondered and focused instead on my own private insecurities, and why people like Rubin and others made me angry the way that it did. Insight can be a wonderful thing.
“Enthusiasm is a form of social courage.”
“It is easy to be heavy; hard to be light. We nonjoyous types suck energy and cheer from the joyous ones: we rely on them to buoy us with their good spirit and to cushion our agitation and anxiety. At the same time, because of a dark element in human nature, we’re sometimes provoked to try to shake the enthusiastic, cheery folk out of their fog of illusion – to make them see that the play was stupid, the money was wasted, the meeting was pointless. Instead of shielding their joy, we blast it. Why is this? I have no idea. But that impulse is there.”
Critical people appear smarter, and gain superiority from their know-it-all attitudes – but there is nothing superior about putting another person down, no matter what form it comes in.
And then, Rubin was giving me advice. Rubin, so similar in character to that person in my life, was giving me advice on how to deal with a person, like her! She spoke of rumination, which was dwelling on slights, unpleasant encounters and sad events, which led to bad feelings and often depression for women particularly as they were more likely to ruminate. This discovery rang true for me, as often following a troubling encounter with someone (that person), a solo drive in to work, alone with my head, can be absolute hell. But the idea of an ‘area of refuge’ which she invented to avoid her tendency to brood, sounded like a brilliant idea. She decides to think of one of Churchill’s speeches, or something funny her husband has done. Although I haven’t had a proper think about how to implement this, it’s certainly a life-task I will be coming back to. It’s like I was meant to read it.
In accepting Rubin’s help, I actually came to realise there were things about her that I liked. For example, she admitted to her faults (and wrote about them for all to critique), something not many people could easily do. She was human, getting upset at her husband and children for everyday things, and had to accept defeat the way many people did, giving up on one of her goals, a gratitude notebook, because it started to feel forced.
Finally, one final thing tied us together and made me much more sympathetic towards her. Her crap handwriting. I too suffer from shithandwritingisis, and it was refreshing to learn she couldn’t write lyrical prose for 45 minutes in a beautiful journal every day, because she wouldn’t be able to read it afterwards! Ahh, kindred spirit.
And, after all that, there was this:
“I love writing, reading, research, note taking, analysis, and criticism….”
This only confirmed to me that I was doing, what I was meant to be doing. In my free time, it’s all about books, notes, reviews, writing… This is where I am meant to be. This is where I am happy.
Although some of the above were tasks I could implement into my everyday life, there were other passages I read, those kind of insane life-changing lightbulb ‘Aha!’ moments that left me with goosebumps I would never forget the feel of.
She told the story of a man who would take his sons out because they would wake early every morning and his wife wanted to sleep in. They gave up trying to convince them to go back to sleep, so the man let his wife sleep and took them out, he got coffee and then watched them play in the park before returning home for breakfast. Rubin said these days, the couple slept late, but the man’s memories of those days with his young boys are the clearest and happiest of that period.
Excuse me while I cry.
Following that story came the highly appropriate quote, and also one of her ‘splendid truths:’
“The days are long, but the years are short.”
This quote quite literally gives me chills. It has become one of my favourite sayings, and a bittersweet reminder of parenthood. It puts everything into perspective, at a time of my life when there are difficult days, when things feel so hard, when I just wish certain stages were over. It reminds me that nothing lasts forever, and only to look back on the last two and a half years to realise that. It’s a scary thought, and a hopeful one too. It puts me where I’m meant to be most importantly, which is in the present.
A second profound insight interestingly came from a reader on her blog, who wrote:
“One day – I was about 34 years old – it dawned on me: I can DO ANYTHING I want, but I can’t DO EVERYTHING I want. Life-changing.”
Hell yeah. We can’t do it all, though in the name of positive thinking, we should be able to. Just another thing to think about, and to remember to do things that make you happy, rather than trying to do everything, just because we can. Focus on those things that make you smile. I’m sitting her typing at my laptop while baby girl naps, but when I re-read this, I’ll feel good about my writing efforts (remember, greater challenge, greater reward).
There was I poem I also came across that struck a particular cord with me, and thank God I googled it before re-posting it on facebook. It was an 18th century epitaph, those things you find on gravestones:
“Remember, friends, as you pass by,
As you are now so once was I.
As I am now, so you must be.
Prepare yourself to follow me.”
It is actually quite eerie, and yet when I first read it I found it to mean something else entirely. In line with my negative take on the saying ‘every dog has its day,’ I felt like it was a promise to those, that their day will come, that they will have hardships, and especially my friends without kids: ‘You will see how hard it is one day too.’ I don’t know why I am compelled to think like this, and why for a glass hall-full gal I am thinking on the negative side when it comes to this dog saying. I know that parenthood is hard, and I know that there are many out there, who like I was before kids, just don’t get it. I think, as weird as it sounds, I feel it’s comforting that I won’t be the only one in life with troubles and dramas. Sounds ridiculous, I know, as if no one has issues. We all do. But knowing you’re not alone, and other people will follow in your steps and have your problems, just as you will follow in other people’s steps and have their problems, makes me feel like we’re in this thing together.
“As you are now so once was I.”
I think whether you’re brimming with happiness and bouncing off of rainbows, or whether you’re staring at that second bottle of vodka with deep desire, we can ALL use this book. Sure, one can argue ‘Why the need to read about being happy, just BE happy!’ And I agree. There were many parts of the book when I just found the whole project a tad complicated, and her second ‘splendid truth:’
“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.”
was a bit of a chicken/egg scenario and rattled my brain as I tried to logically work out which should come first and how they affect one another. But at the end of the day, as long as you can eat both the chicken and the egg, we don’t need to work anything out. Just as we don’t need to think too much about happiness – just be it. And if all that fails, fake it ‘til you make it and as Rubin says and does
“Act the way I want to feel.”
It doesn’t have to be so technical, but then again, whatever works for YOU. Rubin had her splendid truths, her commandments, and that helped her in her happiness project. At the end of the book she supplies additional info and tips on how to better your life and even start your own happiness project, just as she started her own book club too (something I seriously pondered, and still ponder today).
Rubin gave me a lot of inspiration, confirmed for me I was on the right path, and gave me lots of nifty tips and tricks, as well as self-learning, and that is a lot more than other books can say. She vowed to stop reading books she didn’t enjoy, and I too realised that I shouldn’t feel the need to read short stories or stories of sadness/loneliness/woe, no matter how acclaimed they are or how well they’re written. I thought in depth about my ‘True Rules,’ a term she coined for a collection of principles developed over time that help you to make decisions and set priorities. Where one of hers was “When making a choice about what to do, choose work,” I soon discovered one of mine were “There’s a reason for everything.”* And when a reader on her blog listed all the groups and clubs they had joined that year and all the amazing experiences that had come out of that choice, I couldn’t help but think with awe ‘Imagine all the friends and experiences you’ll miss out on by not doing anything?’
The Happiness Project is a must-read for all. Even if you don’t like Gretchen (as I can surely relate to, at times), you will love the ideas and insight into YOU that come out of this book. It’s a helpful guide to come back to time and time again.
As my sauce-splattered kikki.K wash cloth says:
Please let me know your thoughts on The Happiness Project in the comments below, I would love to discuss with you.
(*True Rules coming up in a later post).