Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun by Gretchen Rubin is a look at how the author pushed herself outside of her comfort zone to both change behaviors she didn’t appreciate in herself and develop new ways of being.  At one point she shares a story of how she went to her husband and announced that her blog was a form of stunt nonfiction and, from this experience, she was able to develop a whole book.  She’s not the first and she probably won’t be the last.  There’s definitely a market for these types of books and I’ve read one or more myself.  Let us not forget that some people even manage to get a movie deal out of the “stunt.”

The truth is, I didn’t start off reading this book for myself.  I liked the premise and I know someone who I thought would benefit from the idea.  You see, Rubin does something slightly different from the usual “New Year’s Resolutions.”  Rather than trying to commit to a long list of changes to be implemented at the beginning of the year, she decides to introduce new things once a month.  So January is focused on decluttering and boosting her energy, February on not nagging and her relationship with her husband, etc.  Each month has a theme and there are several things she tackles during the month, with each habit not necessarily mastered at month’s end.  Mastery is not the goal here so much as practice so January’s intentions roll over into February and both January and February into March, etc.  Layering her goals rather than trying to do them all at once. 

And really, is it any wonder people give up on their New Year’s Resolutions after only a few weeks when more often than not the resolutions involve numerous changes and adaptations to one’s schedule?  So I love how she plans things out in a way that allows the year to evolve, and her with it.

There are a few things I didn’t like, and I want to focus on those a moment because I definitely want to end on a (well-deserved) positive note.  Rubin refers to a lot of research and studies but she never specifically cites them.  I would like to read the data for myself.  When someone vaguely says, “Studies show most people blah blah blah” I want to know several things—who sponsored the research, who participated in the research, how was the research conducted (survey, double blind, etc.).  After all, for decades tobacco companies claimed research that proved cigarette smoking was not hazardous to your health but never admitted that they themselves paid for the research.  And political parties can pull research pro and con to support their political stance but so much depends on how the statistical data are gathered, how a question is phrased, etc.   It is not enough for this reader to have some author tell me “research shows.”  Show, don’t tell.  Show me the research.  I’m intelligent enough to draw my own conclusions on the reliability, or lack thereof, of the research.

Also, as I mentioned before, I picked this book up with a specific person in mind and quickly realized that she would not appreciate it very much.  There were times I confess that the author’s bougie dilemmas irritated me.  Not to say I didn’t feel a kindness towards her or even sympathize with some of her struggles.  How could I not read about her sister’s diabetes diagnosis and not project empathy towards her having gone through a very similar situation with my own husband?  But I did find it tedious to read some of the chapters, so much so that I put the book down for a week or more at a time, just to get a break from it.  Yes, I learned some things in the chapter on parenting but I’m no longer at that stage in my personal life and reading the chapter was more a duty than a joy.

Nonetheless, I definitely enjoyed this book far more than I struggled with it.  Perhaps this is because early on I latched on to what she said about other people’s Happiness Project looking different from hers.  (She repeats this . . . repeatedly . . . because I guess she doesn’t trust her reader to remember her saying it even one time.)  Still, it’s a good point.  I’m not a mother and I don’t think even Rob feels I nag him.  In fact, he has encouraged me to nag more than I do.  Well, nag my children more, anyway.  For him, he just wants gentle reminders. 

I would recommend reading this book not as a how-to guide so much as an atlas, mapping the way you can try to make similar changes in your own life.  For Rubin this included things like taking a laughing yoga class, buying herself small but pleasing things, taking a five day Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain workshop, etc.  But really, and what I saw happening as I read along, what Rubin did was simply reframe her circumstances to allow more room for pleasure, for acceptance, for kindness, and, yes, for joy/happiness.  How she did this is not the point.  And how you do it, how I do it, will be different but no less valuable.

PS:  I still may not think that this book is a good fit for the one person but I can think of two other people that will appreciate it very much.  Now I just need to keep my eye out for it in the second-hand bookstore. 

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