The Happiness Project

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I laid low this Sunday with a nasty cold and read another wonderful book sent by my daughter-in-law, Melissa. The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin has been a bestseller, but like many things that others are aware of, I hadn’t heard about this book. Rubin takes a year to examine specific aspects of happiness, one a month, in her own life. Her life is good to start with, but her sense is that she can get easily irritated with her husband and children and doesn’t always  appreciate what she has. She does a very systematic and scholarly job of looking at these aspects of happiness in her life, and her own experiences force the reader to do the same. Her writing is lively and engaging, and I loved reading the book.

Unlike Rubin who cites the book in her own, I was very put off by a book others seemed to love, Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. I found Gilbert to be a spoiled whiner. Poor Elizabeth! Trapped in a mediocre marriage in a luxurious New York apartment with enough money to take a year off to drift around eating, flirting, and fornicating. Who cares? She has nothing to say to me! Rubin doesn’t elicit the same response from me, however. Sure, she’s an Ivy League educated lawyer who decides she doesn’t want to practice law, so she writes books at the same time she cares for husband and kids (obviously with help!), but she doesn’t seem as self-involved and hedonistic as Gilbert. 

Because she seems to be earnest in her quest for self-improvement and acknowledges her privileged life, I can identify with her and join her in examining my own life. I consider myself a happy person, and according to Rubin, that’s half the battle. Even when events in my life have been trying, I have found ways to have fun. I treasure my friends (another important piece of happiness according to Rubin) and have always found them a wonderful source of entertainment and nurture. Those two factors have always been lifesavers for me.

Rubin’s research suggests also that doing what you enjoy as opposed to what you think you should enjoy is key to happiness. First, of course, you have to figure out what you really do love doing. I love doing many things, but aside from cooking and organizing, most of them are sedentary (reading, writing, knitting, drawing). I can’t do these things exclusively so I risk becoming a couch potato. So what! I’m pretty much an urban person even though I live in the woods, and I won’t pretend to be an athlete. Puttering seems to be something quasi-active that I enjoy. I love puttering in the garden, puttering in antique shops, and puttering in clothing stores. So now that I have identified that interest, I will putter with abandon. Rubin starts a blog about happiness to help her on the road to greater happiness, but as opposed to my weekly entries, hers come daily. My read on her is that she tends to overdo. I think daily’s a bit much, don’t you? You have better things to do with your day than read my blog every day, right?

The first month of her quest for happiness, Rubin removes clutter from her life. She goes through her closet and winnows out the clothes she actually wears from the others she is saving for a special occasion which never seems to come. I do this periodically, but for a different reason. I prune out the clothes I don’t wear to make room for new clothes. Novelty makes me happy, and I get a thrill from new clothes. The same is true for the rest of the house. I bring items from the house to the shop just so I can replace them with pieces I like better. It gives me an excuse to shop and spend money. Something else that makes me happy! I also enjoy going through Ron’s closet when he is not around and pulling out shirts and jeans he doesn’t wear. He doesn’t see it the same way. Getting rid of anything is anathema to Ron, and that’s why our yard looks like the parking lot of Home Depot and we have countless plastic tubs full of tee shirts and jeans in addition to a jammed closet and burgeoning shelves. After I have eliminated clutter from Ron’s closet, it’s possible to hang up freshly laundered shirts and jeans. If not, he stacks them in a towering pile next to the closet, and he doesn’t mind. But I do.

Rubin instructs the fellow-seeker to avoid negativity and gossip, which to me is the hardest part of the Happiness Project. Rubin insists you must stop being mean to even the most annoying people, and you must stop even talking shit behind their backs. I’m thinking, though, but what if shit-talking gives me pleasure? She says we should do what we enjoy! There are just some people in the world who deserve to have criticism because what they do is horrible (ie politicians.) If I make myself over into a mealy-mouthed liar who doesn’t say a word about the illegal and immoral behavior of certain people, then in my opinion,  I am some sort of Stepford Wife. I would be like a sex-bot in the most recent Margaret Atwood novel, The Heart Goes Last, human-like robots that do whatever their master tells them to do.

Free will dictates that I speak up when I observe behavior that is wrong. Years as a teacher have freed me to address a student directly who thinks he is being cagey when he farts in my classroom. “Get out! Go directly to the bathroom!” I also instruct talkers in the movie theater to be quiet. And I have stopped a mother screaming “Shut up!” at her child on an airplane (even though the mother raised hell and the flight attendant ran over and told me to SIT Down!) It would not make me happy to contain myself and to strain to be nice to a jerk.

Clearly, I am on the road to greater happiness. I  have removed clutter, decided what gives me joy, and felt less guilty when I engage in shit talking. Next step is to eliminate those things I do not enjoy: looking at my bank statement, vacuuming, and watching the news.

Do your own Happiness Project. It will make you happier!