The Happiness Project

I first discovered Gretchen Rubin through a magazine article she wrote that included her genius “one-minute rule:” if you can do something in one minute, do it now. Hang up your jacket instead of leaving it on a chair; throw out your junk mail instead of throwing it on the table; respond to that email instead of leaving it for later. Her book, The Happiness Project, is a lot more wide-ranging and interesting than this household tip, but that’s what first intrigued me.

Happiness Project

Rubin decided to spend a year reading every book about happiness that she could get her hands on, and trying almost every tip she found. Her goal was not to go on some grand Eat Pray Love-type adventure, but to find ways to make her current life happier. The result is kind of a cross between a memoir and a self-help book; some of it is relevant only to her, and some of it is startlingly insightful and universal. She’s a great writer, too; the book flies by.

I loved her point about expanding your identity through searching for more ways to feel happy and fulfilled:

One reason that challenge brings happiness is that it allows you to expand your self-definition. You become larger. Suddenly you can do yoga or make homemade beer or speak a decent amount of Spanish. Research shows that the more elements make up your identity, the less threatening it is when any one element is threatened. Losing your job might be a blow to your self-esteem, but the fact that you lead your local alumni association gives you a comforting source of self-respect.

After I had my first child, I felt like I lost my identity in a lot of ways, and gained the new and unfamiliar identity of motherhood. It took me many years to reconcile the two. I think this book would have helped. Rubin does a wonderful job of navigating the guilt and assumptions that keep you from trying things that make you happy, or stopping things that make you unhappy. She realized that

just because something was fun for someone else didn’t mean it was fun for me–and vice versa….I tended to overrate the fun activities that I didn’t do and underrate my own inclinations. I felt like the things that other people enjoyed were more valuable, or more cultured…more, well, legitimate.

There’s such great freedom in allowing yourself to do something you like, just because you like it. (And it’s heartening to hear that even Gretchen Rubin, an accomplished lawyer and bestselling author, worries that her pursuits are not legitimate enough! Self-doubt strikes everyone.)

Because of this book, I started doing light reading again. I gave myself permission to read things just for fun, and not only things that were edifying or “important.” Rubin includes her a great quote from C.S. Lewis:

When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty, I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including of the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.

Rubin is secular, but she was also fascinated by the life of St. Therese of Lisieux–not just by her “little way,” but by the way she always appeared happy and cheerful, even when she was going through interior suffering. Rubin distills this into one of her major rules: “act like you want to feel.” She noticed that St. Therese didn’t just make herself act happy; she made herself be happy. It’s not easy, and it’s not fun (not at the beginning, anyway), but it works.

(Please note here that Rubin is not talking about people with depression; she’s only talking about people who want to live their best life. A lot of her tips are actually quite helpful for depression, but if you’re depressed you may find many of the suggestions in this book inadequate and irritating.)

 

 

This book is uneven. Her discoveries about gaining more energy, cultivating habits of gratefulness and cheerfulness, and discerning what really makes you happy are valuable. Her chapters on money and meditation are particularly vague and muddled. Overall, this wasn’t just an interesting read; it changed my life for the better. I’m excited to read her next book, Happier at Home. I’ll let you know when I’m done!

Advertisements

Anchors of Happiness

star-gazing.jpg

We’ve all read about how experiences are better gifts for your kids than toys, but I really liked the way this study put it: holidays with your family are “happiness anchors” in your memory that have lasting effects on your psyche. Now that I’m a parent, I realize how much work my own parents put into arranging special trips for us–not necessarily the giant, Disney-type extravaganzas that most people talk about, but everything from beach vacations to day trips and little rituals at home. Here are some of the moments anchored in my mind.

  • I remember being woken up in the middle of the night to go see comets, eclipses, and meteor showers. I remember driving out to the countryside, being a little scared in the empty darkness but feeling safe with my big brothers, guarding my eyes against the passing headlights to preserve my night vision.
  • I remember road trips that my father planned meticulously, always making sure we’d be near the best delis at lunch time. I treasured a Bazooka Joe comic in Hebrew from a Jewish deli in Connecticut for years.
  • I remember trips to mines and quarries: a boat ride on an underground river, a cold cave pool that never saw the light of day, and giant loose chunks of mica free for the gathering.
  • I remember hours and hours of reading out loud before bedtime: Narnia and Robin Hood with my mother, Tolkien and Homer with my father. Just one more chapter, please!
  • I remember one glorious time when someone offered us a free dumpster full of books that survived a fire, and my father couldn’t resist. We parked it in our driveway and climbed in and dug around for treasures all week.
  • I remember science museums, art museums, planetariums, zoos, aquariums, beaches, mountains, operas, concerts–but also so many small things that my parents probably thought were no big deal: helping my father organize books for a book sale. Science experiments with my mother. I even have deeply happy memories of my bi-weekly turn to come along on the grocery shopping and get to pick the flavor of soda for weekend dinners.

I’m writing these down mostly to remind myself that my kids don’t need big fireworks from me. Today my six-year-old got to come–just him!–to Walmart to buy diapers, and we stopped for a little snack and a chat afterwards (“Subway is the best restaurant ever, Mama!”). My four-year-old is thrilled because she got to do “cutting practice” today (something my mother used to do for me),

Tovah cutting

and my two-year-old is just happy that I watched her do a trick. (“Watch this, Mama! SAME TRICK!”) They will remember the vacations and the expensive trips, but they’ll remember the little things too.

Make your own happiness

There were a lot of inspiring plaques in the behavioral health wing at Dartmouth-Hitchcock hospital, most of them the usual vague “live, laugh, love” type of thing. But one of them really spoke to me. It was actually in the scheduling office, and it said “the time to be happy is now.”

The first part that struck me was the “now.” I often get stuck in the trap of depending on the future and my specific plans for it: when we get a house, then I’ll be happy. When the kids are older, then I’ll be happy. When my husband gets a good job, then I’ll be happy. And guess what happens? I get what I was hoping for, and I still find something to be unhappy about. Or worse, I don’t get what I wanted, and I feel justified in remaining unhappy. The sign reminded me not to pin my happiness on something that might happen in the future.

But here’s something I’m just realizing recently: if you want to find happiness now, rather than in the future, you need to be able to make your own happiness. Is it possible that happiness is a choice? I’m not sure if this is true for someone in the midst of true clinical depression, and I hope I’m not sounding like those clueless people who tell you to just snap out of it and cheer up. But for those of us struggling with mild depression, or maybe just the ups and downs of everyday life, I think it’s possible to choose happiness. When I’m feeling down, I have two choices: I can do the thing that feels good initially, like holing up in my room and watching reality TV, and dwelling on everything that’s bothering me at the moment; or I can do the thing that will make me feel better in the long run, like taking a walk, or putting down the book I’m trying to read and giving the kids my full attention, or putting on some cheerful music and dancing around.

This isn’t easy! It takes so much effort. But each day I’m learning more and more that I have control over my mood, and I don’t have to be a slave to my emotions. Try to be happy! It doesn’t work every time, but I never regret trying.