Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Review: The Happiness Project

Do we need to be taught to be happy?  Children, usually not — but adults... We need some help in that area, Gretchen Rubin decided one day.  She saw a harried woman with a child, and no one looked happy.  She wanted to change that in her own life.

And, with the help of a publisher and marketing department, she turned it into a movement: The Happiness Project.  It comes to you with daily quotes, a book, a daily blog (maintained by the author herself!) and a whole lot of discussion.  Making a mint off the idea that she should be nicer to her family may not have been her original intention, but I am sure it made her happy.

From this writing, you may think me a skeptic — and you would be wrong.  I fell for this idea: hook, line and sinker.  I didn't think I needed to be happier for any particular reason, but the idea intrigued me.  Walking by the stack of books in the bookstore, I wondered to myself exactly what one does to make herself sing in the morning and clean her closets.  So I checked it out from the library.  (Some skeptical habits are hard to shake.)

It started out strong, and was interesting.  Everyone needs to get out her/his own mindset from time to time, reassess and become the person s/he wants to be.  Happiness is a mindset, and I have consciously re-set my happiness dial from time to time.  It can be done.  But a lifestyle re-set?  Rubin sets out to do that very thing for an entire year, breaking up her evolution into month-size bites.  The book was as much a how-to as a memoir of a year in the life.

I was with her, lock, stock and barrel — until April.  

You see, she launched her blog in March — and she used content from it rather liberally beginning in April.  Until then, what she wrote was personal, interesting, self-revealing.  Afterward, however, she turned to the studio audience for their reaction — too often for my taste.  If I wanted to know what random, unnamed strangers thought, I'd have found my own resources.  

My interest started to wane around summer, when she spent a month reading sad memoirs and biographies.  She explained how it wasn't to laud her great, easy life over another's short, sad one, but that's exactly how it felt.

Her repetition was tedious. She established in January that she had fabulous, involved in-laws who live around the corner (and who, as Jews, alleviated the pressure of "which family gets Christmas this year"); a patient, loving husband with Hepatitis C; supportive parents; and young, brilliant, beautiful daughters.  I got it early on.  

She liberally quoted famous and obscure authors, which made her sound just this side of know-it-all, at least in the beginning.  By July, I wondered if she had an original thought in her head.

By September, I was scanning chapters, skipping the blog excerpts, looking for "interesting parts."  

That might have been me reading too much too soon, not pacing myself properly for that type of book.  Fast-moving fiction can be swallowed nearly whole; instructional memoirs, maybe not so quickly.

Add with that the fact that her life already was completely off the charts: as a Yale alumna and successful lawyer who clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor who happens to be the wife of a successful laywer-cum-private equity investor, with a home on Manhattan's Upper East Side.  

Let's leave out the influential parents on both sides and apparent wealth for at least a couple of generations, because we know those things do not guarantee happiness.  It's the ability to do what we want that makes us swoon with envy.  (I wonder if the publishing house took that into consideration before publishing the irony of a happiness book by someone with that bio.)

In the end, I took away a couple of great ideas, such as, "If you aren't going to do something about what you're complaining about, STFU" (which wasn't even her idea) and starting a children's literature reading group. I might find my own Truths and Commandments, and hers (and her reading public) offer a good place to start.  I am continuing to make a conscious effort to be positive (which I started before reading Rubin's book).  I will try to get to sleep earlier.  I'll get rid of that which I don't need (which may be easy, what with all of my recent unpacking).  It's a worthwhile read.

If asked, I'd recommend reading the book, but read it critically.  Take what interests you with a liberal grain of salt and cheerfully discard that which doesn't apply to you.  It's what Gretchen would want you to do.

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