Saturday, January 23, 2010

#4 - The Happiness Project

Many, many years ago, after what felt like a lifetime of taking prednisone for the disease and suffering through the awful "induced psychosis" and resulting debilitating depression side effects, I began to explore the idea of happiness. My doctor recommended reading Mark Kingwell's In Pursuit of Happiness: Better Living from Plato to Prozac, which I did, until I got about halfway through. It just wasn't practical. I didn't need an empirical exploration of what "happiness" was -- I needed some magic lessons to lift the pressures of my troubled life and float me away on a magical river of self-understanding, satisfaction and, yes, intense happiness.

Like so many aspects of my (naive?) twenties, you have to grow up a little and realize that happiness isn't something that magically appears. It takes hard work, it's incremental, and it's perhaps not even the point. Gretchen Rubin's year-long experiment, her aptly titled The Happiness Project, comes to some of the same conclusions. Rubin doesn't set out to radically renovate her life.

Instead, she took incremental steps to increase her happiness on a daily basis. She tried everything, from smiling yoga to starting a YA book club, and created a theme for each month in the year to centre and ground her expectations. Not everything worked. Which, I imagine, was to be expected, but I'm going to summarize, perhaps incorrectly, that the point of Rubin's book wasn't to just find new things in life that equated a happy pill -- it was to try and experience organic growth around the goal of leading a happier life.

Yet, like Kingwell's book, I found Rubin's to be also somewhat unsatisfying. She's got a sweet, chatty tone to her writing, did massive amounts of research, and put herself out there (warts and all as they say) in an intensely personal way. Yet, the book, on the whole, felt a little superficial. And perhaps that's just me as a reader; I did want some broader, philosophical implications from studying happiness for a year. But, in Rubin's defense, that's not at all what she set out to do. There's a lot of hows in Rubin's book, and not a lot of whys. She's a goal-orientated person (and loves her gold stars) and therefore her quest for happiness consists of plenty of goal-orientated activities.

When it comes right down to it, maybe I'm looking for a balance between both books in my own search for understanding -- a book that takes happiness outside of the person, looks at it from a different perspective, what does it mean and why it's important, and then provides some guidance about how to get there. There's an undercurrent to The Happiness Project that equates, in my mind anyway, that the end result is somehow deserved -- but I know I'm reading my own thoughts into her project. The idea that by being happier herself Rubin can then infect others with these lightened feelings seems simple enough. But, like I said before, the book feels a bit too much like a happiness "to do" list to me. Maybe I wanted Rubin to dig a little deeper (why did she have so much clutter to begin with, what's the emotional resonance behind any of the projects she embarked upon over the year) -- the book felt rushed to me: did this, check, tried that, check, improved this, check, now on to the next thing.

However, I'm not even going to remotely suggest that it's not a good idea to spend a year trying to a) improve yourself, b) improve the lives of your family or c) try to make it through life with a lighter, happier load. For this, I tip my hat to Gretchen and her year-long quest to be herself, sing in the mornings, and do what she loves. And also, I say a hearty hallelujah to the author for setting out from the beginning the differences between suffering from a depression (Rubin's not at all depressed) and that all encompassing sadness, and the meaningful way she wants to set out to improve her life on a daily basis. Not once does she mix up "sadness" and call it "depression." The slippage of the word depression into the lexicon whereby it becomes interchangeable to 'sadness' enrages me.

Annywaaay, Rubin's clear, honest and forthright; she's intelligent, a keen reader, and doing good in the world by helping the many readers of her successful blog -- those are also things wherein I cannot find fault. But maybe for her next year, she might explore a little self-help Beth Lisick-style, because Helping Me Help Myself still remains my favourite of the happiness-seeking memoir genre.

2 comments:

Jonita said...

I'm planning on starting this one this week myself- it seems like a great January read! I read Lisick's book after your recommendation and so I'm hoping that I will enjoy this one :)

Gretchen said...

I saw the nice mention of my book, The Happiness Project, here. I very much appreciate those kind words and you shinning a spotlight on my work. Thanks and best wishes,
Gretchen