Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Happiness Project

While riding a bus one day, Gretchen Rubin started thinking about her life, and realized that she was taking it for granted. She decided to embark on a project to change her perspective.

She wrote:
"I've got to tackle this," I told myself. "As soon as I have some free time, I should start a happiness project." But I never had any free time. When life was taking its ordinary course, it was hard to remember what really mattered; if I wanted a happiness project, I'd have to make the time. I had a brief vision of myself living for a month on a picturesque, windswept island, where each day I would gather seashells, read Aristotle, and write in an elegant parchment journal. Nope, I admitted, that's not going to happen. I needed to find a way to do it here and now. I needed to change the lens through which I viewed everything familiar.

All these thoughts flooded through my mind, and as I sat on that crowded bus, I grasped two things: I wasn't as happy as I could be, and my life wasn't going to change unless I made it change. In that single moment, with that realization, I decided to dedicate a year to trying to be happier.
Inspired by Benjamin Franklin's chart to track his practice of thirteen designated virtues, Rubin came up with her own chart, on which she could record her resolutions and score her daily performance ('good' or 'bad').

She then had to come up with the resolutions. This took some pondering, but she came up with twelve focus areas (one per month), and, for each of these, "happiness-boosting resolutions that were concrete and measurable."

While developing her resolutions, Rubin gradually identified a set of general principles, which she distilled into her personal Twelve  Commandments:
Be Gretchen.
Let it go.
Act the way I want to feel.
Do it now.
Be polite and be fair.
Enjoy the process.
Spend out.
Identify the problem.
Lighten up.
Do what ought to be done.
No calculation.
There is only love.
She also came up with a more random list, "Secrets of Adulthood." My favorite is "What you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while."

 The rest of the book (by which I mean "most of the book" - the discussion of her goal areas and resolutions and chart and Twelve Commandments comprises the introduction, "Getting Started") consists of a chapter for each month. In these chapters, she describes that month's area of focus, the corresponding resolutions, and her efforts to keep those resolutions.

I found her book to be an interesting read. The structure of her program allowed her to choose goals and resolutions specific to her own situation, likes, dislikes, needs, and so forth. I wish she had gone into more detail describing the process of making these choices, but it seemed her real purpose was to document her experience in following those choices. I did enjoy reading her experiences, seeing how she changed over the year, and how, as a side effect, her family benefited from her project.

I felt her approach was more realistic than others, and something normal people (like me) could tackle. Here is her take on it, also from her introductory chapter.
I had fun coming up with my Twelve Commandments and my Secrets of Adulthood, but the heart of my happiness project remained my list of resolutions, which embodied the changes I wanted to make in my life. When I stepped back to reflect on the resolutions, however, I was struck by their small scale. Take January. "Go to sleep earlier" and "Tackle a nagging task" didn't sound dramatic or colorful or particularly ambitious.

Other people's radical happiness projects, such as Henry David Thoreau's move to Walden Pond or Elizabeth Gilbert's move to Italy, India, and Indonesia, exhilarated me. The fresh start, the total commitment, the leap into the unknown - I found their quests illuminating, plus I got a vicarious thrill from their abandonment of everyday worries.

But my project wasn't like that. I was a unadventurous soul, and I didn't want to undertake that kind of extraordinary change. Which was lucky, because I wouldn't have been able to do it even if I'd wanted to. I had a family and responsibilities that made it practically impossible for me to leave for one weekend, let alone for a year.

And more important, 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 in the haunting play The Blue Bird, where two children spend a year searching the world for the Blue Bird of Happiness, only to find the bird waiting for them when they finally return home.
The subsequent chapters describe, month by month, small step by small step, the changes she makes. By the end, I couldn't help but think, hey, I could do this, too - assuming I could get past that vague part about figuring out what resolutions will lead to my happiness.

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