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What We're Reading Now

20 May 2011

Rachel got more happiness out of her vacation by reading The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun by Gretchen Rubin. (When a book has both pleasure and purpose, that's a good thing.)

Tags: gretchen rubin, happiness, rachel read

In the past several months, I've been reading a lot about happiness. While I had the excuse that I was preparing to teach a new course called "Happiness Matters," the truth is that I'm mostly an optimist who believes that everyone — including me — could use a little more happiness in their days. Even though I've been on this topical kick, it's fairly rare for any form of nonfiction to travel with me on vacation; as readers here may have noticed, I like my escapist fiction-with-little-redeeming-value quite a lot. So I was a bit surprised when I put Rubin's memoir of her year-long quest to boost happiness into my carryon bag, but it ended up being a terrific choice. 

Former lawyer-turned-writer Rubin shared my interest in exploring the subject of happiness, and in the vein of other recent memoirists (Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray Love and Julie Powell's Julie & Julia come to mind), she decided to spend a year chronicling her efforts to attend to her happiness. For her project, Rubin opted to maintain her 'regular' life and increase her focus on a different dimension of her happiness (energy, marriage, work, parenthood, play, friendship, money, eternity, passion, mindfulness and attitude) each of the first 11 months of the year before wrapping things up with a pay-attention-to-everything December. The book does a nice job of weaving together pieces of Rubin's research with stories of her experience and how-to tips for those of us reading along.

Rubin is quick to point out that her happiness project isn't meant to be replicated; in fact, one of the truths of happiness is that it's different for each of us. Regardless, this window into another person's journey left me with a lot of my own food for thought. What dimensions would I pick? What resolutions would I make? Would using a daily resolutions chart help me as it did Rubin, or would the mere structure of it prompt me to resist? What would I write as my commandments for living? In addition to these questions, Rubin's thoughtful musings help break down the myth that pursuing happiness is somehow self-indulgent or an unworthy pursuit. More and more, researchers are documenting the cascading benefits of happiness (or, in more scientific-sounding terms, positive affect), and Rubin's examples bring the research to a pleasantly human scale.

To top of her list of commandments, Rubin chose, "Be Gretchen," and through the text, we get a glimpse of what that means. It's less about a value of authenticity or originality, and more about her efforts to know herself, to distinguish between what she wants to want and what she actually wants, and to make choices accordingly. Seems like a good path to happiness to me.


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