My Happiness Project

I’ve already confessed that I spent far too much time in front of the TV during my weeks of bed-rest.  But once the worst of the nausea passed, I started to devour books as quickly as I could get my hands on them.  Among my favorites were Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, and – the subject of today’s post – Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project.

I followed the hype surrounding the release of The Happiness Project with equal parts curiosity and skepticism.  For a long time I have felt a tension between knowing intellectually that I lead an incredibly fortunate life and feeling less than satisfied much of the time.  So I am often intrigued by articles and approaches that suggest a step-by-step path to happiness.  On the other hand,  I am sometimes dubious about whether happiness is really the be-all and end-all of emotions, a sentiment some of you expressed during our Raising Happiness book club earlier this year.

So it was with this mixed bag of preconceptions that I cracked open Gretchen Rubin’s bestselling book.  In it, she describes a year in which she attempts to stay true to a series of happiness resolutions that she hopes will improve her vitality, family life, friendships, hobbies, work, and spiritual life.

Well, I don’t know if Gretchen is a genius or if this book just came into my life at the perfect moment, but I loved it. I found her earnest, honest exploration of her life extremely resonant and I felt like I could relate to her challenges and her resolutions.

Overwhelmed by clutter?  Check.  Snippy toward my husband?  Check.  Prone to allowing items to languish on my to-do list for months at a time?  Check.

Moreover, I was moved by Rubin’s suggestion that we all can find small ways to improve the lives we have now: “I didn’t want to reject my life. I wanted to change my life without changing my life, by finding more happiness in my own kitchen. I knew I wouldn’t discover happiness in a faraway place or in unusual circumstances; it was right here, right now.”  As much as I’d sometimes like to pull an Elizabeth Gilbert and hightail it to Italy, India, and Indonesia for a year, that approach doesn’t seem viable for a married mom of two little kids with a third on the way, so I appreciated the reminder that a series of small steps can be as rewarding as a few dramatic ones.

While reading the book, I also broadened and personalized my own definition of happiness.  I’m never going to be super smiley and bouncing with energy.  Happiness for me isn’t about birds chirping and angel choirs singing.  Rather, it’s a shorthand for feeling the way I want to feel and acting the way I want to act.  Focusing on finding contentment, satisfaction, and resilience.  Being more grateful.  Being more selfish when it’s appropriate and being less selfish when it’s not.  Welcoming in the good stuff and saying sayonara to the not-so-good.

I was so moved by the experience of reading the book that I decided to start a happiness project of my own.  For the next six months (well, perhaps the next four months and then another two some time after the baby is born), I will try to follow my own resolutions.  The six themes I’ll be working on?

  1. Boost your energy.
  2. Cultivate your mind.
  3. Get your house in order.
  4. Love your family.
  5. Be a good friend.
  6. Cultivate your spirit.

Up first: Boost your energy.  The eight resolutions I’ve been working on this week and will continue to focus on until mid-October (several of them borrowed from Gretchen herself):

  1. Sleep eight hours every night.
  2. Exercise a little bit every day.
  3. Incorporate a new Michael Pollan-ism every month: Another book that had a big impact on me this summer was Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food.  In it, he offers “an eater’s manifesto” and a number of suggestions for eating more healthfully all the while learning to enjoy food more.  I’ll try to adopt one of his ideas each month.  (More on this next week.)
  4. Act more energetic.
  5. Use a daily to-do list.
  6. Clear my closets.
  7. Tackle a nagging task.
  8. Observe the one minute rule: If something needs to be done and can be accomplished in less than one minute, do it now!

I hope you will join me on this journey, friends, and will help hold me accountable for making these changes.  I’ll report back each month and will let you know my new set of resolutions as I move on.

Here’s to happiness – however you define it.

Have you read The Happiness Project?  What did you think?

What does happiness mean to you?  Do you think happiness can be increased or decreased through sheer force of will?


48 responses to “My Happiness Project

  1. Wow! Great post! I got this book last spring and started it and LOVED IT. And just recently I saw it at the bottom of my book pile and wondered why I paused reading it. So now you have motivated me to pick it back up! You spoke very eloquently about main ideas. I love your goals. I will see if I can crack it open again this weekend.

  2. While I’m all for happiness, so much of what constitutes our happiness is presence to the moment and so much of what blocks it is fear and desire, that any of these books, paths, activities or attitudes will proves successful… so long as we actually do them (and stick with it consistently).

    As a psychologist I often see clients hit upon a great key and then fumble and drop it in a few weeks, only to become excited about the new magical key (Power of Now, The Secret, Yoga, Pilates, new relationship, move to a new city, etc. etc.). I’m saying this because you are brave enough to put this happiness project on the line and in the open. As a group, perhaps, our honor will be to support you to stay with WHATEVER it is you are feeling (allowing our feelings to just be, and being connected in the bargain, I think can be healing; but giving love, which you already do, is a huge key to happiness—thus your post and your process, since it means much to your readers, probably will help you feel good).

    If you (and/or any of us) find a way to stay authentic AND connected with us all (which you have already done this morning), then you/we are “happy” and it’s only just begun, right?

    Long ago I remember telling a therapist about some fantasy I had that I believed would make me happy. She pointed out that what I really wanted was the feeling I imagined I would have if the fantasy came true (and that there was no guarantee about what I would feel, so I was better off to deliberately cultivate the feeling I wanted rather than the external thing). This has been a guiding insight for me through dark and sunny times.

    I think the search for happiness is a lot like Dorothy’s quest to get home in “The Wizard of Oz.” The men and women behind the curtain are always just that, but the truth is that we already have the magic shoes, we just don’t typically know how to use them. Isn’t saying “there’s no place like home” a lot like Thich Nhat Hahn’s walking meditation (“I arrive, I arrive, I arrive; I am home, I am home, I am home”)? Both are ways of saying be here now?

    Finally, I’m sure I join all your loyal readers in wishing you splendid happiness and yet I feel compelled to point out that you seem to have mastered all the steps you seek to climb: you have demonstrated boundless energy (until a difficult pregnancy seemed to be nature’s way of forcing stillness); you have a highly cultivated mind; (okay, I don’t know about your house being in order); you obviously love your family; at least at the virtual level I find you an excellent friend; and you have a lovely and abounding spirit.

    It’s always worth rededicating ourselves to these worthy ideals, much as setting intention, exercising, loving, etc. must be lived each day to make that day resonant and magical. But if there’s no place like home, I think you’re already there… already here—and we love you for it.

    My vote is to consider that our personal pains, frustrations, insecurities, boredom, melancholy and fear (which we ALL have) are actually some sort of cosmic whisperings meant to get us talking, connecting, helping each other, practicing our yoga TOGETHER, loving our kids TOGETHER, searching for happiness TOGETHER (while still each being our unique selves and honoring our endlessly varied experiences ).

    Sorry for the long comment, but I passionately wish you (and all your readers) happiness today, not in some future that will only be today when it arrives.

    • Wow, Bruce, wow.

      I should have called you last night when I was thinking about this post and trying to articulate my hesitancy in giving myself over to any happiness version of a get-rich-quick scheme. Clearly you know exactly what I mean; I could have just quoted you and been done with it!

      I think there’s a way in which Gretchen Rubin’s writing on the topic offers a sort of Upper East Side version of Thich Nhat Hanh. For most of us, happiness (and whatever positive emotions that word is code for) is here now. But, she cautions, we carry around literal and existential baggage that prevents us from experiencing the joy available in many moments.

      For me, an example of that baggage would be the Mountain of Shoes by our front door. I know in my head that having some sort of storage receptable for the boys’ Buzz Lightyear sandals and Husband’s work shoes and my 19 pairs of flip-flops would help me breathe that much easier (and thus be more able to laugh at the baby as he does a version of downward dog that results in a somersault as we come in the door from our walk.) But I never stop to think of a solution to the Mountain of Shoes. So day after day after year it sits there and annoys me and drags on my happiness. And I really appreciate her reminder to take care of the little things, to stop and reflect on what those little drags are so that I can get them out of the way.

      Happiness is here right now. I agree.

      Now about those shoes…

  3. I haven’t read all of the book; maybe I should finish it. Maybe I just got it at a poor moment for me; I found myself skeptical and disgruntled with the whole business. Maybe it was just a knee-jerk reaction from my distaste of Elizabeth Gilbert and Eat, Pray, Love…I don’t know.

    Anyways, looking forward to hearing about your project and what does/doesn’t work for you!

  4. WHOA! You are definitely in that exciting second-trimester stage of good energy! Use it all, enjoy it, take advantage of that excellent back-to-school crisp feeling in the air to blow out the cobwebs and find yourself happier.

    (Just don’t force yourself to overdo… remember, you’ve got to take care of yourself first. Adjust your oxygen mask a little bit here, and give yourself some slack.)

  5. I am so glad you read this book!! You know how much I loved it too as I’ve talked about my iwn project with you on my blog! For me, finding the happiness everyday in the here and now has changed my life so much this year! I look forward to reading about you journey!!

  6. Kristen, I think we’re channeling the same energy in the universe as I just wrote a manifesto this week (although I’m not brave enough to publish it yet) to push myself to be gentler with myself, to seek an inner peace amid the noise and clutter. It’s inspired by Shapiro’s Devotion and other events in my life, but I think it’s a great idea to have your intentions out in the open so you feel like you’re accountable to more than just yourself, and perhaps that will hold us to our commitment.

    Good luck to us both 🙂

    p.s. Looks like I will have a few more books to add to my to-read list. Thank you!

    • Hi Justine,

      I’m not usually one for resolutions, but the idea of putting these in the open felt right to me, especially because they’re so concrete. In the book, Gretchen Rubin talks about the importance of checking up on yourself and your resolutions daily. (She even offers a chart for doing so.) While I don’t plan to drone on and on about my happiness project every day on the blog (wouldn’t that be exciting!?), I do want the sense of accountability that comes with having told you guys about it.

      It sounds to me like your manifesto might involve some deeper thinking than mine and I understand the temptation to hold it close to your heart for now. I know I for one would be honored and delighted to see your thoughts if and when you decide to share them.

  7. I read THP this past summer and really enjoyed it. I too was skeptical going in, but found her systemized approach to be well-suited to the way I approach the world already. I am a pretty happy person, and wasn’t motivated to start my own happiness project. But it is a book I refer back to periodically as a guidepost. I love all the items on your list and hope that you find success (and happiness) in checking them off. Please keep us posted!!

  8. I like this: Happiness… [is] a shorthand for feeling the way I want to feel and acting the way I want to act.

    To me, that is akin to freedom. The freedom to be oneself – something we simply cannot do every day if our lives involve spouses and children and jobs not to mention the worlds of complexity that many of us are subject to. So perhaps small step-wise measures that bring us closer to comfort with ourselves – including the ups and downs – mean less unhappiness and dissatisfaction. That, in my world, would be a victory.

  9. I have not read this, but now I want to … for this.

    The one minute rule. It is profound and true. Just went to my online library site and requested a copy.

  10. So interesting, and timely for me too as I continue with my own “Project Finding Me.” Much of what you say here resonates with me and yet I’m skeptical – not of your ability to see through your own happiness project, but of any formula. This book is sitting steadfastly on my to-read list because I’ve read such mixed reviews. I’m definitely going to follow along my friend, I’m curious to learn more.

    • I hear (and shared) your skepticism. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have cracked open the book if I hadn’t had weeks of bed-rest with nothing else to do! 🙂 But I was pleasantly surprised by what I found and how it spoke to me. (One tip: Gretchen Rubin posts (usually quite briefly) on her blog six times a week. If you like her voice and ideas on her blog, I think you’ll appreciate the book.)

  11. I was not at all interested in the book before I read your post, but now I will be adding it to my reading list. I’m looking forward to seeing how it goes for you. If I could just get a handle on all my closets and cupboards I would be a much happier person!

  12. Do you think happiness can be increased or decreased through sheer force of will?

    Yes. It takes effort to work on the things that prevent us from being happy and content. It takes time to push those things out of the way. Good things come from desire and the willingness to do what needs to be done to change desire into reality.

  13. How I know what that tension between “knowing intellectually that I lead an incredibly fortunate life and feeling less than satisfied much of the time” is. When that intellectual part of me tries to negate the feeling part of me, it makes things worse. So I’m glad you’re nurturing yourself where you can, when you can. It sounds like a plan is in place!

  14. I like that getting one’s house in order is one of the rungs on that ladder. The notion that finishing my house (and then getting it in order) will make me happier is part of what keeps me going on those days when I feel like burning the place down!

  15. Love your inspiration and “baby steps” (literally, huh? 🙂 approach. Isn’t it something when a book hits us at just the right time to get us moving along the right path? And then other times, when everyone else is reading something and nodding their heads in agreement -but you, because of where you are in your particular life, just don’t get it.

    So glad you were in the right place at the right time frame of mind for this book, however!

  16. For me it’s so much easier to be critical and I think that leads to unhappiness. I don’t think I’d use “sheer force of will” as the term, but I do think that we have much more control over whether or not we’re happy. I think it involves a level of acceptance of where you are and what you have. And perhaps even some perspective – and keeping perspective. There are people out there with situations far worse than my own so sometimes I just have to keep reminding myself of that until I believe I am happy.

  17. Kristen, I totally understand. Life can be so overwhelming at times, that we forget that we alone are responsible for our own happiness. That happiness in daily doses is TONS better than major events that later leave you feeling blue when they are all over.

    Over the last year or so, I have made an effort to tackle some of the things on your list. I am pushing my own boundaries in ways that I had never imagined. And you know what? For the most part, I am happy. I am married to a man that I love and respect, and who loves and respects me right back. My children bring me joy on an (almost) daily basis. I am surrounded by family and friends who are supportive and loving. What more could I want?

    Instead of wishing or waiting my life away for the “big” things, I am looking at the things we tend to overlook, but brings us happiness anyway. I am going to have to find that book and catch up!

    • “Instead of wishing or waiting my life away for the ‘big’ things, I am looking at the things we tend to overlook, but brings us happiness anyway.”

      My friend Hilary once called this phenomenon the ability to “bloom where you’re planted.” This is a major issue I have: always looking ahead, wondering what’s next or what’s better, focusing on some future destination rather than the current journey. I know that I’ll have to work on this as part of my happiness project.

  18. Sounds like a great project to embark on and a book I need to read!

  19. I read THP a while ago and loved it as well. I wrote a post on it where I stated that although the whole book was pretty simple in what GR suggests we do to find happiness, I was proud that I enjoyed the simplicity of it all.
    I also made my “list”. I was so inspired when I finished the book, and so sure I’d tackle my list with gusto. But sadly, like so many other things these days, I just didn’t find the “time”. Or the will. Or something… but just thinking about the book makes me happy. Knowing it IS possible to find happiness with what is right in front of me.

    So thank you for reminding me. And Good Luck sticking to your list!

  20. I think something I have learned over the past 6 months is that happiness really can be found in everything. I don’t think there is any formula, just a pair of new eyes. I’m not referring to happiness as a choice, but to happiness as a matter of thinking. (Maybe that’s the same thing?) Anyway, I don’t look to chocolate, books, or even naps as my happiness. I look to laughter, silliness, walks, and even the outside as happiness. (My brain is still muddy these days so maybe that only makes sense to me.)

    I have also learned that there are times when order cannot be achieved. Like on bed rest. It is at these times that I find myself even more irritable–you know, when I make a goal and can’t achieve it. So, I strive to be better but understand my limitations. (I also hope that soon I will be back to my normal activities.)

    • I totally hear you about the bedrest situation. And I hope you’re soon feeling better and able to tackle (or not tackle) whatever tasks you want.

      One of the ideas Gretchen Rubin writes about in her book is “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” The way I’ve been feeling the past few months has forced me to live this way, even though it doesn’t come to me naturally. But I really do think it’s a healthy approach – whether one is on bedrest, having a bad day, or just having a regular day.

  21. Hey – I just remembered I bought this book a few months back, immediately loaned it to a friend, and never saw it again.

    Your resolutions sounds really do-able and significant enough to make a difference. That sleep one is always the hardest for me. I wish you luck!

  22. I read Bruce’s words and, can I just say, “Ditto”. Then your comment about the shoes, laughed and said, “Ditto” again. It is one of Life’s ponderously lovely juxtapositions that happiness, and all that we want to float into that word, is both: Be happy NOW and find a bin for the shoes.

    And I couldn’t be happier that this is so.

    It is quest and settling into the center all at the same time.

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  24. so glad you enjoyed the book, kristen. i loved it too and often invoke Gretchen’s maxims “do good; feel good” and “enjoy the fun of failure” to get me through my day. on a practical note, you’ve just reminded me to clear our own shoe mountain…it’s no longer summer, after all, so why do i still have 5 pairs of sandals by the door!??!

    Delia Lloyd

  25. I’ve been meaning to tackle this book, so many of my favorite bloggers have read and loved it.

    I do think that happiness can be increased. But you have to look for the happiness that is already there. Usually in the small, everyday moments, and see them for what they are. Happiness can be simple, like watching the expressions on your son’s face as he watches a house in the neighborhood being torn down. You can’t make happy things happen, but you can find happiness in every day life.

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  27. I’ve been a fan of Gretchen Rubin’s blog Happiness Project for a long time. In fact, that is how I found Aidan ILI and all of the wonderful bloggers that occupy this space.

    My personal happiness project is just one thing: Focus on the present. That is it. To immerse yourself in the given moment, without anticipating what you hope to happen or how you wished you did something differently in the past.

    I will be cheering you on and am eager to learn your progress on your goals.

  28. I am excited to hear updates on this journey of yours. I’m curious to know how much self-reflection is involved and whether you feel the process gives you greater perspective on life or not. I applaud you for sharing. I follow Gretchen’s blog but am way to nervous to read the book and/or engage in a Project of my own. It’s not very brave, I’m just worried of all the introspection that I’ll have to do! As a SAHM (although I work PT, but from home) I sometimes feel my world is so small, only defined (the ups and the downs) by the quotidian, and that in turn makes my perspective small and thus easily pleased (which is a good thing) as well as irritated.

    But your takeaways from the book really resonated with me and so my curiosity is definitely piqued.

    • Hi Rebecca – As a reader of Gretchen’s blog, I’m sure you’re familiar with her “Secrets of Adulthood” and her personal commandments. In the book, she talks about how one might arrive at her own individual realizations as she is working on her happiness project. I’ve found some of those realizations, which have come from the self-reflective process of coming up with personal resolutions, to be very powerful. I hope to write more about them as I explore them further.

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