As I’ve mentioned before, I became aware of this book back in January and the idea of it was so appealing that I felt compelled to buy a copy at the first opportunity, duly gravitating toward the self help section of Waterstones.
The idea apparently came to the author, Gretchen Rubin, whilst sitting on a bus one day and for no particular reason. She makes no secret of the fact that she and her family are comfortably off New York City dwellers. She has two daughters – one of about 7 and a one-year-old (at the time of the book was written), a good career as a writer (having previously trained and worked in the legal profession), a loving husband, good family ties, and no major health issues or illnesses to contend with (other than her husband’s Hepatitis C which is more of a future worry than a present concern).
On the face of it, it seems odd, perhaps a little self indulgent, to launch such a project when she appears to have no great need and no real obstacles to overcome, other than her own nature, but she addresses this criticism early on, explaining that it was really an exercise in being more grateful, being less snappy with loved ones, more contented with what she has in life, and she argues that “contemporary research shows that happy people are more altruistic, more productive, more helpful, more likeable, more creative, more resilient, more interested in others, friendlier and healthier. Happy people make better friends, colleagues and citizens”.
From this perhaps I would re-name the book “The Self-Improvement Project”, but packaging under the heading ‘happiness’ certainly hooks you in as a potential devotee because, lets face it, who doesn’t strive for happiness throughout their life? There’s certainly nothing new about that, as Rubin is well aware, quoting everyone from Aristotle to Benjamin Franklin to Samuel Johnson.
Rubin is one of those very earnest, highly educated, intellectual Americans – a high achiever, a resolution maker and at the same time full of self doubt and constantly evaluating and criticising her own nature (which I guess is justified in the context of this book). You get the feeling that she found it harder to lighten up and get silly with her children than to plough through several ‘memoirs of catastrophe’ – by that meaning biographies written by people diagnosed with terminal cancer and the like (an exercise in learning to view life with serenity and appreciate the joy of being alive and healthy).
I’m still not convinced that everything she does in the way of prostrating herself – for example her week of ‘extreme nice’ during which she allows her husband to get away with leaving all the hard work to her and never complaining – are not just an exercise in door-mattery (I admit I just made that word up but you get my meaning!).
But despite this criticism and taking on board the author’s earnest tone and the fact that several of her ‘revelations’ are things which struck me years ago and just common sense really (for example really listening to other peoples stories, humouring, not interrupting, encouraging and affirming are as much of a gift to others as any material offering, and the fact that giving of yourself, both time, money and spiritual support, will make you as happy as the person you are helping) I did take away a lot of interesting thoughts and ideas from this book. I am very mindful right now of her mantra ‘the days are long but the years are short’ with regards enjoying and appreciating my own adorable small children, and I am looking forward to de-cluttering my life somewhat and to reading “A Landing on the Sun” by Michael Frayn which is apparently a must-read on the subject of happiness (and anyway I love Frayn!).
I also took her advice on ‘spending out’ last week when I bought my new camera – sometimes, if you buy exactly the right thing, money can buy happiness and in the case of my camera, I know this will allow me to capture many happy memories, particularly while my children are so small, and it is also the potential start of a new hobby.
Trying new hobbies, joining social groups, identifying and owning the things which interest and intrigue you (the author herself starts up a Children’s Literature Reading Group despite agonising over the seeming lack of intellectual cast to the pursuit), all these things, as well as making resolutions and sticking with them, are goals and aspirations which I will take away with me from reading this book.
I may be a very different person to Rubin but she herself acknowledges that no two people will have the same happiness project, and, despite her desire to be unique she has to acknowledge that she has tapped into, not only the zeitgeist, but the zeitgeist of every generation in seizing upon the fundamental human desire for happiness.
I’ll leave you with two of my favourite TED talks on aspects of happiness and how to achieve it.