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.

And How Was Your Day?

Week two of reading and responding to The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin as part of Joy Weese Moll’s January Reading Challenge, and wouldn’t you know it?

Yesterday was not a happy day.

Nothing serious happened, but my life felt out of control— too much to do, too many obligations, and every chore seemed to take longer than it should have. I had no time to write until last night. Not that I didn’t want to write this blog post; I did. But at that point, honestly, it was just One. More. Thing.

I was tired, frustrated, irritated, impatient, angry, even sad. I vented to my husband (he was handy). I railed at myself for not knowing how to say no.

Looking back on a day full of petty annoyances makes me glad I’m reading The Happiness Project. Granted, I’m thinking about my own discontent and my failures, but more importantly, I’m considering ways to make my life happier which, in turn, will affect the lives of those around me—especially those close enough to take the brunt of my bad days!

Not about me?

The other night, when I was reading chapter four in The Happiness Project, I jotted this down: “Many of Gretchen’s attempts to make herself happy turn out to be about other people.” A bit later (p. 147), she writes about discovering her Second Splendid Truth:

One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy.

One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.

Sigh. Yes. I don’t believe I made anybody happy yesterday, least of all me. I was too scattered. I resented the tasks I needed to complete. There’s some satisfaction in having done them, but at what cost?

 The rant’s over; aren’t you glad?

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

Let’s get to chapters four, five, and six, our reading “assignment” for this week.

Chapter 4 — Lighten Up: Parenthood

I don’t have much to say here. I’m a long way from child-rearing, but Gretchen’s advice to parents still applies. How much better would my day have gone if I’d stopped at some point, taken a deep breath, and found something to laugh about? If I’d lightened up?

Chapter 5 — Be Serious about Play: Leisure

Yesterday afternoon, when I was still turning from one thing to another, my husband sat calmly at the breakfast room table, working the New York Times crossword puzzle. I was close to tears. “It must be nice,” I said, “to sit around and work crossword puzzles all day.“ Ouch. He doesn’t work crossword puzzles all day. He’d repaired the garage door when it didn’t work, had done some writing, and had exercised a couple of hours. And more. I was angry, not with him, but with myself. It wasn’t just that I’d had no leisure time yesterday; I couldn’t remember when I’d ever had time to fritter away.

But whose fault is that? I know, don’t I.

Like Gretchen, I have a hard time identifying what I do for play. Oh, I spend time messing around on Facebook. I read. Writing is fun but also serious, even tearful business that dredges up emotions and leaves me wrung out. That’s not fun. There were the art classes I took a few years ago; I loved playing with oils and watercolors, and painting was so absorbing that the two-hour classes passed like minutes.

Have I done it since? No. So Gretchen’s “fun” chapter deserves a second read. I need to learn how to play more or play better!

Chapter 5 — Make Time for Friends: Friendship

I’ll simply reiterate Gretchen’s main points here and encourage you to read the book, if you haven’t. They’re important.

Remember birthdays. How hard is that, really? But it requires planning.

Be generous. Generosity is often more about time and self than money. If I’d approached the things I had to do yesterday in a spirit of generosity, how much better might the day have gone?

Show up. This one nagged me to pick up the phone last night and call a friend whose husband had had surgery. I’m glad I did.

Don’t gossip. I thought of this when I was in the midst of a conversation with a friend. We were talking about someone else, and it made me uncomfortable. Thank you, Happiness Project.

Make three new friends. Hmm. This one is hard. More food for thought.

Enough.

Sometimes as I’m reading this book, I think, gosh, Gretchen Rubin can’t be human. Everything seems so easy for her. How can she research and read and write and raise children and have a good marriage and friends and two (or is it three?) reading groups and throw big parties and publish and exercise and have fun and show up and be generous? Etc. Etc.

The perfect woman? No. Gretchen’s not perfect, and neither are we. Here’s where I see she’s human and very real: at the end of chapter six, she talks about how her “basic temperament” hasn’t changed, but in spite of that, she feels “more joy and less guilt.” And then she says this:

In some ways, in fact, I’d made myself less happy; I’d made myself far more aware of my faults, and I felt more disappointed with myself when I slipped up. My shortcomings stared up at me reproachfully from the page (163-164).

Ah, Gretchen, I want to tell her. You’re young, but so wise.

We all have days like that. I had one yesterday. But today–maybe today will be different.

How do you cope when you’re having a bad day? If you’ve read The Happiness Project, did you find Gretchen Rubin’s “strategies” for a happier life helpful?

Listening Back

I haven’t been able to get these words out of my head today:

We cannot live our lives constantly looking back, listening back, lest we be turned to pillars of longing and regret, but to live without listening at all is to live deaf to the fullness of the music.  — Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey

My Wordsmith Studio friend, Lara Britt, keeps encouraging me to write memoir.

“But I write fiction,” I tell her; “I don’t write memoir.”

Oh sure, I’ve written some pieces for this blog, mostly in the context of exploring memory in relationship to story. Or at least that’s what I’ve told myself. I have to confess, though, that I found it cleansing to “get them out,” those stories, some of them like a painful tooth; it felt good for them to be gone, no longer cooped up inside my head. But a memoir, a cohesive story of my life? No, I don’t think I have the material. Or the nerve. Because it takes courage to remember.

no such thing as perfection

I used to think I’d had a nearly perfect childhood. Nobody beat me. I didn’t grow up poor. I didn’t grow up rich. But I was an only, overprotected child in a household where the grown-up dynamics were complicated, so not so perfect, after all. Idealistic and immature, I did what I was expected to do: got a teacher’s license so I could “take care of myself” if the need arose, married a good boy with “promise,” settled down and had babies and and generally lived what I thought would always be the good life. How can I get stories out of that?

Well, life doesn’t always turn out that way, does it? And that’s where remembering gets hard.

looking back, listening back

I understand Buechner’s “looking back” as an easy metaphor for examining the past. When we look back, we either boldly turn and face the past head on or we glance over our shoulders so memory comes at us a little sideways, a little slant of the truth. Either way, we see visions of how things used to be. Sometimes they’re lovely; sometimes, nightmarish.

My dad's radio / Gerry Wilson
My dad’s radio / Gerry Wilson

But how do we “listen” back? Maybe Buechner means the way we play old “tapes” in our heads: the reruns, the should-haves, the voices, the patterns of thought that occupy our minds and keep us spinning helplessly in one place, not moving ahead but not able to go back, either, which of course we can’t do; we can never, ever go back, not to the previous minute or hour or day, not really, except through the filter of memory.

Too much dwelling on the past and we risk turning into “pillars of longing and regret,” Buechner says. Soured on life. Stuck. Sad. Lost.

deaf to the fullness

But then Buechner makes the turn, important in a poem but also in any good story: “to live without listening at all is to live deaf to the fullness of the music” [emphasis mine]. To shut off remembering is to miss out. Shutting off the past makes us less than what we can be and keeps us from living fully now.

So maybe my friend is right. Maybe all our remembered stories, no matter how simple they seem on the surface, deserve to tell their noisy little selves: to shout out, to sing off-key, to be messy and loud, heartbreaking and beautiful at once. Just like our lives.

Nobody wants to “live deaf to the music.” How do you confront—or embrace—your past?