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.