Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Happiness Project

A trip to the beach (even with both children and no other adult to help supervise/wrangle/referee) would not be complete without packing ample beach reading. I brought no fewer than five actual books, plus my Kindle, which is loaded down with more books than I could possibly finish if I lived to be 108.

I finished two of the books, and my Kindle was claimed by Rachael when she ran out of literature of her own. Thank goodness I had downloaded several age-appropriate books for her as well.

At any rate, the book I am currently reading is The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin.

LOTS and lots of food for thought in this book. The author and I don't have a lot in common - she's an attorney-turned-writer living in New York City, and I just get the impression that we might not have a lot to talk about. But she does have a husband and two daughters and a desire to maximize happiness in their lives as well as her own, so we're not complete opposites.

Whatever our differences or similarities, her concept is interesting. She identified twelve areas of her own life that could use improvement in some way to increase her family's overall happiness. Then she assigned each one to a month and spent an entire year on her "happiness project."

The twelve items she chose to focus on were vitality, marriage, work, parenthood, leisure, friendship, money, eternity, books, mindfulness, attitude, happiness (which I'm assuming was just her year-end wrap-up, since the whole project was about happiness. But I haven't finished the book yet.)

Those topics all sound pretty good to me, although I imagine they'd be slightly different for everyone. I would probably forego "work" in favor of something else, since she's more career-minded than I. And I would reorganize the list a bit too - eternity and attitude up, money and leisure down.

I'm only four months (chapters) into the book, but much of what I've read has resonated with me. Like her, I am blessed and I know it. I have a great husband, two amazing children, a home, reasonably good health, money for the things we need. I'm not unhappy. But neither is my happiness level through the roof, by any stretch of the imagination. Who couldn't use a little more happy?

I tend to be a bit "down" by nature, I suppose. I've never been Suzy Sunshine, but neither am I too miserable to participate in polite society. I have days that are happier than others, and moments that are pure joy. But my feelings are hurt easily. I sulk (usually inwardly.) I have a short fuse.

The author repeats a theory that she read elsewhere, that people have a "happiness threshold." It's not possible, the theory says, to "get happier" so much that we live in a state of constant bliss. Rather, we get used to new, happier situations until they become commonplace, less happy-inducing. So the theory maintains that each person has a range of happy, so to speak...you can be at the tippy top of your happiness level, riding the middle, or at the bottom, just barely happy.

Wouldn't it be nice to be at max-happy?

On page 66 of the book, the author explains her own goals thus:

"To be happy, I needed to generate more positive emotions, so that I increased the amount of joy, pleasure, enthusiasm, gratitude, intimacy, and friendship in my life. That wasn't hard to understand. I also needed to remove sources of bad feelings, so that I suffered less guilt, remorse, shame, anger, envy, boredom, and irritation. Also easy to understand.

And apart from feeling more 'good' and feeling less 'bad', I saw that I also needed to consider feeling right. 'Feeling right' was a trickier concept: it was the feeling that I'm living the life I'm supposed to lead...in occupation, location, marital status, and so on. It's also about virtue: doing your duty, living up to the expectations you set for yourself."

All worthy goals, I think. I would certainly do well to weed out a few "sources of bad feelings" myself. I'm not sure if I'll dedicate a whole year to my own happiness project, but it's definitely something I'll be considering in the coming days and weeks.

Truth be told, part of the reason that I was so eager to get to the beach was for the peaceful, reflective atmosphere...which I get to enjoy from the hotel balcony after the girls are asleep, but still. It's good enough for me. I so needed the calming influence of the ocean in my life right now. (I'm just not sure that a week is going to be long enough.) I had every intention of coming here to think...about things that need to be changed, things that need more focus, things that need to take up less of my time and attention.

I literally stopped by the library on our way out of town to pick up The Happiness Project, a hold that had just arrived. Turns out that it fits in quite well with my personal, meditative goal for the week.

Maybe 32 is the year for an overhaul.

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