The Happiness Project: End, or Beginning?

Gretchen Rubin has a way of getting my hackles up (that’s Southern for irritating/ annoying/making me angry), and I’ll tell you why: I think I’m a lot like her.

No, I’m not a commercially successful writer. I’m not a young woman balancing career and home and young children. I’m probably—well, no probably about it—I’m not as smart or well-read as she. But here’s what she and I have in common, and here’s why, I think, The Happiness Project has gotten under my skin more than once.

Convicted, Count # 1

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

In Chapter 10, “Pay Attention: Mindfulness,” Gretchen writes:

I have several tendencies that run counter to mindfulness. I constantly multitask in ways that pull me away from my present experience . . . . I tend to dwell on anxieties and hopes for the future, instead of staying fully aware in the present moment.

I know that woman. She looks back at me from the mirror every morning. High on my list, if I were to embark on my own Happiness Project, would have to be Pay Attention. Be Still. Don’t skip life. Be in the moment because, as trite as it sounds, that’s what we have.

If I would pay attention more, be still more, listen more, be open more, live in the moment more, laugh more, I would, no doubt, be happier.

Convicted, Count #2

And in Chapter 11, “Keep a Contented Heart: Attitude,” there’s this:

Did I have a heart to be contented? Well, no, not particularly. I had a tendency to be discontented: ambitious, dissatisfied, fretful, and tough to please.

Gretchen goes on to say that in some instances, these qualities serve her well, but in others, her “critical streak wasn’t helpful.”

I can vouch for that. I am quick to criticize, I sometimes speak without thinking (and regret it), I’m often fretful without knowing exactly why. I can be tough to please. I’m a perfectionist. I keep a low level of anxiety most of the time.

Procrastination feeds anxiety. I can be the world’s greatest procrastinator, when not procrastinating–knocking out some of these tasks and marking them off the BIG LIST, or sitting down and writing for an hour without worrying about the outcome–would make me a more relaxed, contented, and yes, even happier person.

Reprieve

Work in Progress / Gerry Wilson
Work in Progress / Gerry Wilson

So there are practical aspects of Gretchen’s “truths” and strategies I can’t ignore.

I’ve resisted her idea of the Resolution Chart, but making a list, at least, of areas where I might improve the quality of my life (and therefore improve my level of contentment) would be a good starting point. Initially, the goals will be nebulous: Organize, for example. Or Stop Procrastinating. Until they’re accompanied by concrete, measurable steps, those goals will never see daylight. So I might start organizing by cleaning out one file cabinet drawer a week. Or going through only one box of old photos and dividing them into folders by relationship (said sorting to be continued, photos scanned, etc.). Yes, that might do as a start. But only one concrete goal at a time. Schedule them, yes, but leave time for some spontaneity, some laughter.

Some writing!

That’s where my procrastination hits hardest: I must have done fifty things this morning rather than write. The trick is to own the flaw and consider ways to change. In some ways, I’m a person who loves structure. In others, I’m very free-wheeling and creative. Can the two parts of me coexist? Yes, I believe they can, and they deserve to do so.

One final “Gretchen truth”

Rubin writes about “negativity bias” which simply means that people, especially women, are more geared to be negative than positive:

One consequence of the negativity bias is that when people’s minds are unoccupied, they tend to drift to anxious or angry thoughts. . . . [O]ne reason that women are more susceptible to depression than men may be their greater tendency to ruminate; . . .

Oh, my: a ruminator. That’s me. Gretchen goes on to offer the idea of a “mental ‘area of refuge.'” Areas of refuge can be just about anything we can call to mind–a favorite passage or quotation; a person; a memory; a phrase–that triggers good thoughts or soothes us so that when negativity threatens, we consciously call up something to take its place. Which, of course, requires discipline.

I think, for me, I should take the “area of refuge” more literally. I dream of building a little studio in our back yard–a place where I could go and write, away from distractions. That may never happen, though, so I want to consider where I might literally create a space of refuge inside the house. I don’t yet know where that might be or how I might make it work, but such a space would enhance my writing life and my levels of attentiveness and contentment considerably.

So this final Happiness Project post has been less book review than personal reflection, but maybe that’s not a bad way to approach any book. At some point I realized that I became impatient and irritated with this book when I saw myself in Gretchen Rubin’s attempts and especially in her failures. That’s an important “something” to carry away.

Thanks to Joy Weese Moll for the challenge to “read along” with The Happiness Project, and thanks to Gretchen Rubin for doing what I could never do: devoting a year to creating more happiness in her own life and then having the courage to write about it. She’s a  modern Benjamin Franklin (whom she acknowledges). Old Ben set his eyes on perfection, and even though he found it unattainable, believed he was a better man for having tried.

So I should try, too. So might we all. What can it hurt?

If you have followed these Happiness Project posts, I thank you! They were a kind of discipline practice for me, actually–a way of getting back into the blog in the new year. Now for new topics, new territory, maybe even a new look! Come along and see.

17 thoughts on “The Happiness Project: End, or Beginning?

  1. Gerry, I loved reading this and, even without having read the book, can relate vicariously to your experience with it. There are “to do” items that are easy accomplish — I can feel quick satisfaction and ease doing laundry or dishes or neatening my car or planning lessons. But then we’re left with the more resistant ones, like stopping procrastinating or finishing one last, tough revision. My to do list this year was all the un-fun things left over after all the easier things were accomplished. Like you said about breaking goals down into sorting one drawer or group of photos at a time, it helps to make concrete steps. Good luck as you move forward with your goals, and thanks for sharing this great post!

    1. Elissa, I’m good at *puttering*, whether it’s around the house or on the Internet or when I’m writing. I may be the world’s worst procrastinator. I’m good at letting even the un-fun things get in the way of the writing, and that’s not good. Trying to change that! Thanks for reading.

  2. I enjoyed the discussion on The Happiness Project. I really need to do something concrete to cement some of it in my mind and improve myself in ways that I’ve been “meaning” to do.
    I’m at the Post-It note stage of life — leaving notes to myself everywhere — so I just had to read aloud to my husband the part where Gretchen writes that she had posted reminders of the frame of mind she wanted to cultivate in different rooms of the house. In the master bedroom she had posted the note to herself “Tender and lighthearted”; her husband crossed it out and wrote “Light and flaky.” She attributed her improved ability to laugh at this (and herself) to her happiness project. I think I’ll remember that little anecdote for a long time! The spouse doesn’t always understand you at every moment, but we need to accept each other as we are!

    1. I should try the post-its! I do believe reading the book has made me more self-aware. And I think we’re laughing a little more around here. I’m trying *not* to take myself so seriously. Thanks, Laurie.

  3. Wow, Gerry! You sure did take on a big/extra project with this! Sounds like an accelerated course to me. I admire your honesty and your digging. Sigh….onward and upward! “Every day is a brand new beginning…let this be the start of something new….lalalalalala”. Best of luck. Thanks for bringing us into your world.

    1. Beth, it wasn’t extra, really; I wanted the incentive to write for the blog. Now I’m looking at a mostly blank editorial calendar . . . so “onward and upward!” is right! I need to get busy and think of some topics that might interest folks “out there.”

    1. Celi, we’re fine. I’ve missed you! For some reason, I stopped receiving email reminders re your posts, and I’ve fallen behind. I’m trying to get back to the blog on a regular basis. I wish I had an enchanting farm to write about! I hope you still have all fingers and toes in this cold! I’ll be over to catch up on the farmy soon.

      1. Don’t worry about catching up, there are heaps of people who have lost the email connection.. wordpress does that sometimes.. we are all here and well though sheila bit the boar she was supposed to be having a date with, and that is ALL the news.. only drop in when you have time.. honestly.. I hate the thought of pressure in the blog world.. c

  4. I love the structure of this post. So creative! The perfect way to express your reflections on The Happiness Project.

    Have you read The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield? I just started it last night and it looks like it’s going to be the perfect follow-up to The Happiness Project — especially for writers with a tendency to procrastinate!

    1. I started The War of Art night before last! It does look interesting, with its short sections; So far, it seems you could almost dip into it at will and find something meaningful. Thanks, Joy. The Read Along has been fun, and it’s been good for me to get back to the blog. One of my “resolutions” is to work on an editorial calendar and plan ahead.

  5. The Happiness Project led you to post, which led you to reflection, which led you to dream of a personal writing refuge. Make your dream happen. You don’t need a whole lot of space, just ‘your space.’ All the best in that project, we want to read about it, okay?

  6. Oh I agree so much! I definitely saw a lot of my less positive (see, I’m trying not to be negative) qualities in Gretchen.

    I too have difficulty with keeping a contented heart and staying in the moment. As the mother of a young child (and I’m not particularly motherly), I resent the hell out of people telling me to ‘cherish every moment’. I stubbornly sink in my heels and resolve not to cherish ANY moments as long as I have to scrape food off of ceilings or poop off of walls, but then I sit and read to her at night and know that there are moments I should be cherishing more and it’s a hard switch to flip. I’m working on it.

    It’s been fabulous getting to know you through this read along and I’m glad that I discovered your blog as well!

    1. April, I doubt any parent cherishes the poop on the walls! Don’t kick yourself about the “cherish every moment” thing. There will be unforgettable moments and those we all want to forget! Thanks for the read and comment. I hope to see you back here, and I’ll try to visit your blog, too.

  7. Oh I agree so much! I definitely saw a lot of my less positive (see, I’m trying not to be negative) qualities in Gretchen.

    I too have difficulty with keeping a contented heart and staying in the moment. As the mother of a young child (and I’m not particularly motherly), I resent the hell out of people telling me to ‘cherish every moment’. I stubbornly sink in my heels and resolve not to cherish ANY moments as long as I have to scrape food off of ceilings or poop off of walls, but then I sit and read to her at night and know that there are moments I should be cherishing more and it’s a hard switch to flip. I’m working on it.

    It’s been fabulous getting to know you through this read along and I’m glad that I discovered your blog as well!

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