The Happiness Project

I just finished reading Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project and, in general, enjoyed it. Reading some of the books I review for the Wall Street Journal, City Journal and other places is like a forced march. This was a pleasant stroll. Perhaps this is because Rubin and I have some odd similarities (we both have Sept 4 wedding anniversaries, December birthdays, trouble with names, in addition to being argumentative freelance writers married to businessmen).

But it’s also a fun book. Since this is a blog post, and I don’t have to follow the kind of format I would in a regular book review, I’ll just give some observations.

Things I liked:

-The discussion that happiness is, at least in part, the result of habits. We can choose to get enough sleep, to exercise and eat better, to revel in the present, to be grateful for such little things as the yellow roses on my desk against a backdrop of the snowy Manhattan skyline. All these things, chosen as part of our 168 hours, make for a better life.

– When you have a good life, you can get caught up in the remaining annoyances, rather than appreciate it. This is probably not wise, as all of the good parts could be taken away from you in a second.

Rubin is pretty sure how her life will come crashing down. Her husband’s Hepatitis C, contracted from a blood transfusion at age 8, will destroy his liver. He will need a liver transplant, which he may or may not be able to get, and which may or may not work.

We can’t all see into the future so clearly, but we can gird ourselves for the inevitable. I was frustrated last night because when I came home at 10:00pm from choir rehearsal, neither of my children were asleep. My husband was out of town, as he is more often than I would like, and so I had to deal with it. Then my 2-year-old asked to snuggle with me and the baby, and there is just no way to adequately describe the look of love on my baby’s face as he gazed at his older brother. Pure adoration. I was his sole source of nutrition for 4.5 months, and I don’t get that kind of look! I am not sure how many times in my life I will get to see such a miracle of veneration, so I’m glad I did.

-It is harder to be enthusiastic than critical. People assume enthusiastic people are easily pleased and not very perceptive. But you can still ask for things to be done differently after focusing on something that was done right. Of course, I’m not sure how that concept fits into my professional job as a critic; it is a fine line to walk of being scrupulously fair and honest yet positive if you can.

– A good life can be made better by filling it with as many positive things as possible. Happy memories don’t just arise, you create them. Then you savor them by doing things like writing in a journal or looking over photo albums. In 168 Hours, I talk about finding space for things that bring you happiness, and even using “bits of time for bits of joy.” Any empty space in your calendar can be made better with a good cup of coffee, reading a poem, writing a poem, or calling a friend.

– Children are only little once, and you should not act like they are a burden.

– Frugality may be a virtue, but like cleanliness, it’s a virtue best practiced in moderation. There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that when I was little someone asked me what expensive meant. “Costs a lot of money,” I said. What does cheap mean? “We can buy it!” It has taken me a while to get to the point where I now recognize that I have more money than time and furthermore, while I can quite easily earn more money, all the money in the world cannot buy me one more second. I have 168 hours a week, period. So I should spend money in ways that make my time more enjoyable. It is also perfectly acceptable to spend small amounts of money on things that will make me happy. Money is a tool, not a good in its own right, and as long as I am living well within my means, buying fresh flowers for my desk and gourmet cheeses is not profligacy.

Things I questioned:

I had some quibbles with the book. To put my reviewer’s hat on, there were too many comments from readers of the Happiness Project blog. These comments were not as graceful as Rubin’s, which makes sense. She is the professional writer. Better to sprinkle their quotes as a garnish in the text. Then there were a few larger issues:

– Rubin makes the point that we should engage in activities like exercise, book groups, writing groups, etc. that make us happy. But she barely mentions what makes these things possible for the mother of small kids: childcare. At one point, Rubin describes popping over to a friend’s house for several hours to arrange her closet. Did her husband take the kids? That’s great if they have a system where they trade off childcare (you go to your friend’s, then I go to the gym), but I’m sure readers would love to know how they keep a fair tally that makes everyone happy if that’s the case. Given that she describes how her husband travels for work, I am guessing that she often has a sitter. The problem is that this requires planning ahead, and takes some of the fun out of spontaneous gestures of love like the closet-cleaning. Or does she have a nanny who covers both her work hours and the evenings? Or someone who lives with them? There is nothing wrong with 24/7 childcare, especially in a household where the two parents both have big careers. But it would be nice to know how this all works.

– The other one: Rubin is asking the question of what it means to live a good life, a life that involves joy, bringing joy to other people and feeling right. Every month she examines these questions in a different aspect of existence (energy, love, children). She gets around to the concept of eternity and God…in August. God is number 8 of 12? It is hard to think of the divine being compartmentalized and viewed through the lens of one’s own happiness, as opposed to being a great, unknowable and infinite power. Since Rubin is so thrilled to discover Saint Therese of Liseux, the “little flower” known for her cheerfulness, it’s surprising that she doesn’t delve into exactly why Saint Therese could express such joy as she was dying in agony. Perhaps her happiness project happened in a different order? Still, all in all a good read – and good use of a few of my 168 hours (an update to this post: even more than a few, as I wound up reading it twice!)

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