"Happiness seems like an ephemeral concept. What really makes us happy? Money, relationships, health, travel . . . well it turns out to be all of those things and none of those things"
In The Happiness Project, author Gretchen Rubin sets out to make herself happier and discovers that, like beauty, happiness is in the eye of the beholder. She’s a middle class New Yorker buzzing through life, seemingly as happy as anyone. And therein lies the rub. Is anyone happy? Are we all just rushing through life without asking the big questions or living our passions?
Rubin is quick to differentiate her feeling of malaise from someone suffering from depression. She realized that while her life seems great, much of the time she is often fogged out and just going through the paces of daily living, which is not the same as someone who suffers from diagnosed clinical depression.
As a professional writer and former lawyer, Rubin is a research addict. Her mission in The Happiness Project - and in her other books, blog and podcast - is to find out “how people meet their aims for themselves and how can I help people meet those aims.”
Unlike many books in the self-help genre, Rubin’s offers a self-effacing look into her own life and offers insight into how she approaches problems, executes solutions and learns from the process. Along the way, readers learn what they can apply to their own lives.
Hers is a year-long journey that starts in January with resolutions to clean up her act, literally. Monthly goals are set, resolutions are revealed and progress is tracked. January seems the perfect time to join with many others who make yearly resolutions. She defines resolutions as ongoing changes one would like to make, not goals that are met before moving on.
Acknowledging that most folks don’t have the time or expertise to work on such a voluminous project and integrate it into their work/home/family/social existence, Rubin says: “Pick a couple of things that would make you happier, like making the bed or following the one-minute rule: anything you can do in a minute should be done without delay.” She notes, “Many people don’t do a fullon happiness project.”
This is the case for Gail Shearer. Because of Rubin’s candid writing style and thorough research, Shearer finds The Happiness Project a good read and something that she relies on as a guide for keeping on track to do “small, everyday things that we can use to bring pleasure to ourselves and others.”
After reading the book two years ago, she undertook her own year-long happiness project, journaling about three goals that she set each month. Many reflected epiphany moments from the book.
“She’s such a force when she writes,” explains Shearer, “and there were so many things that struck me as truths. For instance, one of Rubin’s ‘secrets of adulthood’ is ‘bring a sweater.’ I don’t care anymore that people sometimes laugh at me for doing this.”
The 71 year-old London woman also adopted one of Rubin’s ‘personal 12 commandments’, ‘Be Gretchen,’ meaning know and be true to oneself. So she’s adopted a similar personal commandment of ‘Be Gail.’ “It’s discovering that we know our own true selves without worrying what other people think; it frees you from a lot of restrictions.”
In her role as a social worker, Mary Rodenhurst sees clients who want more out of life but often can’t define what that is. She says an assessment is necessary to determine what behavioural changes are necessary for improved happiness. Activation is what makes the process work, though, she adds.
“Making it concrete, what we call activation, like putting all the activities on a calendar so it’s a commitment to yourself to actually do those things makes it real,” says Rodenhurst.
With clients, she also sees the value in Rubin’s theory that happiness can’t be achieved without taking care of one’s physical self. Enough sleep, good food and exercise are important to overall wellbeing before one can seek to be happy in other areas, according to Rodenhurst.
Though Rubin discusses ‘spending out’ – the concept that money can buy happiness when used correctly, as well as how changing or enhancing one’s environment and personal pursuits can affect personal happiness, much of the book is spent on the idea that true happiness is derived from enhancing personal relationships.
Jennifer Jimbere, a business consultant and coach, echoes one of Rubin’s sentiments. “Keeping a contented heart is key,” she says. “One is not happy without thinking him or herself happy.” She feels that this is reflected in the quality of one’s relationships with family, friends, co-workers and social acquaintances.
“It’s social spending,” Jimbere explains, “Rubin discusses the concept of do good/feel good. We can demonstrate generosity with our time.” If someone feels a lack of meaning in his or her work, she suggests volunteering at a shelter or participating in a community activity to improve the meaningful relationships in clients’ lives. “It’s a way to give back,” Jimbere adds.
Another important part of The Happiness Project is Rubin’s commitment to tracking her progress throughout the year, using a resolutions chart. “We manage what we monitor,” says Rubin.
Though she no longer finds it necessary to use a resolutions chart herself, Rubin says many of her readers find it helpful in motivating themselves.
Jimbere calls it “creating a cadence of accountability. You can keep track on paper, or check in with someone by having an accountability partner.”
The search for happiness can be hard but, as with most things, half the fun is getting there. Rubin’s work in The Happiness Project and in her blog and podcast provide a framework and food for thought for those who are willing to work on becoming happier. But that’s not everyone as Rubin observes in her book: "Acting happy and, even more, being happy is challenging. Furthermore – and it took me a long time to accept this perverse fact – many people don’t want to be happy or at least don’t want to seem happy (and if they act as if they’re not happy, they are not going to feel happy.)"