I was a big fan of Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, so much so that I created, and soon abandoned, a Happiness Project of my own, very much based on her resolutions. So it was with great anticipation that I bought and read her latest effort, Happier at Home.
In Happier at Home, Rubin undertakes a new Happiness Project. Inspired by a feeling of homesickness, a “prospective nostalgia for now and here,” she dedicates a school year to making her home a place that best supports her happiness. Among the resolutions she makes are “Give warm greetings and farewells,” “Suffer for fifteen minutes,” and “Try acupuncture,” some with more success than others. (Acupuncture, she decides, is not for her.)
I liked the book. I relate to Rubin’s mission to “change my life without changing my life” and I share several of her personality quirks: I too am a homebody, I have little sense of adventure, I am a note-taker and a list-maker, but neither a crafter nor a decorator. There are several gems throughout, both insightful tips for the problems that plague most families (especially helpful to me were her ideas for “controlling the cubicle in my pocket”) and deeper, more philosophical realizations. Among the latter, I found particularly resonant her realization that “To ‘Be Gretchen’ was the way to happiness, but there was also a sadness to this resolution – the sadness that comes from admitting my limitations, my indifferences, all the things that I wish I were that I will never be. To cram my days full of the things I loved, I had to acknowledge the things that played no part in my happiness.” This makes a lot of sense to me, as I creep closer to middle age and realize that, while I can be whatever I want to be, I cannot be all things at once.
As much as I enjoyed parts of the book, it didn’t motivate me the way that The Happiness Project did. The problem that I have, I’ve only very recently realized, when I read a book like Happier at Home is that I find her experience and the trappings of her life – which involve living in a triplex on the Upper East Side and having the time and means to pursue a life of research and writing – so appealing that instead of following her advice to “Be Kristen,” I try instead to “Be Gretchen.” I think for a time that adopting slightly modified versions of her resolutions and making massive checklists to keep track of them is the map that will lead me to the Holy Grail of Happiness. And then I get frustrated and anxious when I fail to meet my goals.
None of this is Rubin’s fault, of course. (Indeed, she deems a Secret of Adulthood her realization, “I do best what comes naturally.” She explains: “When I pursue a goal that’s right for me, my progress comes quickly and easily; when I pursue a goal that’s wrong for me, my progress feels blocked. Now I try not to fight that sense of paralysis, but rather see it as a helpful clue to self-knowledge.”) But, according to a recent New York Times “Opinionator” piece, I’m not alone in my frustrations.
Last month, my dear friend Elizabeth forwarded me a terrific essay called “America the Anxious,” by Ruth Whippman. Whippman, a British woman living in California, contrasts Americans’ relentless pursuit of happiness with the trademark British cynicism. “It’s not that we don’t want to be happy,” she writes, “it just seems somehow embarrassing to discuss it and demeaning to chase it, like calling someone moments after a first date to ask them if they like you.” Calling happiness “the overachiever’s ultimate trophy,” Whippman connects the American approach to attaining happiness to our dubious distinction as the most anxious nation in the world. Very familiar to me was Whippman’s description of the allure of going after happiness: “The initial sense of promise and hope is seductive, but it soon gives way to a nagging slow-burn feeling of inadequacy.” Yup and yup, that’s just that way I feel when I embark on one of my projects, only to fizzle out a few weeks or even days later, wondering what my problem is.
And can happiness even be increased? Apparently. According to UC Riverside psychology professor Sonja Lyubomirsky, while half of our happiness is genetic and another 10% is based on life circumstances, as much as 40% “of our happiness is under our conscious control.” But my own experiences are starting to suggest that an active, dogged pursuit of happiness – and perhaps even seeing happiness as an ultimate goal – makes me anxious and, well, unhappy.
Since my a-ha doctor’s appointment a few weeks ago, I’ve been trying out some small changes to see how they affect my tension levels and tingly limbs. I’ve been cutting back on caffeine, doing lots of very gentle yoga, prioritizing sleep. Do I feel less stressed? For sure. More able to enjoy my time with my family? Indeed.
Happier? Who knows.
But I’ll take it.
Do you pursue happiness? Or do you take it where you find it?