BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Nice work if you can find it, I guess ...

It's probably a merciful thing that I've forgotten precisely what/who suggested that I check out Gretchen Rubin's 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 … I suspect that I read about it in some other book, as most folks who know me realize what an cantankerous, cynical, and generally pissed-off kinda guy I am, and would figure that this book and I were operating in wholly different universes. Frankly, for most of this book, I felt like Wednesday Addams being sent to the “Harmony Hut”, and wondering when it was going to end.

Speaking of divergent “worlds”, I try not to read reviews of books before I review them, but in this case I was trying to decide if I was going to buy a copy, and found a recurrent theme in the more negative reviews. I'm not one to toss around the “privileged” tag a lot (although being now 20 years separated from a six-figure income in my on-going entrepreneurial impoverishment, it's an occasional temptation), but the author lives in a pretty high-end niche, with concerns (or lacks thereof) unfamiliar to probably most readers. She's a former clerk for Sandra Day O'Connor, a former chief adviser to the chairman of the FCC, and a lecturer at Yale, while her husband is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution … so you can imagine what their income level is. At one point she cites a study that “suggested that getting one extra hour of sleep each night would do more for a person's daily happiness than getting a $60,000 raise”. I have acquaintances who think making $35k/year is a princely sum and say that were they making (as little as) $50k/year they'd never bother with trying to better their positions! For these folks (and I think they're more common than not), “getting a $60,000 raise” is no more conceivable than having little green men walking out of a UFO to present the check … yet the author throws this out there like it's an everyday possibility in her world. So, understand that the “happiness” being addressed here is not including being relieved to keep the lights, cable, and internet on, make rent, and buy some groceries in any given month.

I found it somewhat ironic that, towards the end of this, Rubin reports reading a review of her project (which had been unfolding on a daily basis on a blog) to her husband, and noting it was being called “stunt journalism”. Given the inapplicability of her example to (what I assume to be) most readers, this is taking that to a “meta” level … all but admitting the “stunt” aspect of this within the actual body of the work. Of course, there is a wide variety of works that fall under that (obviously somewhat snide) label … from the sublime: Julie and Julia – to the somewhat ridiculous: The Guinea Pig Diaries (etc.) … with this falling somewhere in the middle.

So, with those caveats, on to The Happiness Project … this begins with her taking a crosstown bus in Manhattan on a rain-soaked day and seeing a person just like her, “trying simultaneously to balance an umbrella, look at her cell phone, and push a stroller”. She notes:
I wasn't depressed and I wasn't having a midlife crisis, but I was suffering from midlife malaise – a recurrent sense of discontent and almost a feeling of disbelief.
Amusingly, she relates this to the Talking Heads' song “Once In A Lifetime”, specifically citing the line “This is not my beautiful house.”, and then adds:
All these thoughts flooded through my mind, and as I sat on that crowded bus, I grasped two things: I wasn't as happy as I could be, and my life wasn't going to change unless I made it change.
{Yeah, cue the tiny violins.} She jumped into doing research on “happiness”, and started spinning out materials, a “scoring chart” based on that used by Ben Franklin, a list of categories and sub-categories (which became the basic structure of the book), a list of her own “Twelve Commandments”, and what she calls the “Secrets of Adulthood” (among other lists of stuff), drawn from a wide array of sources.

Now, I really didn't sync with much stuff in here, so my little bookmarks of “choice bits” are few and not particularly illustrative, so I'm thinking the most useful way of presenting what's in the book is to fall back on giving you an “outline”. The project was designed from the start as a year's enterprise, so is broken up by months, each month tackling a different area, with its own specifics, and action points. Here goes:

      January – Boost Energy – Vitality
            - Go to sleep earlier.
            - Exercise better.
            - Toss, restore, organize.
            - Tackle a nagging task.
            - Act more energetic.
      February – Remember Love – Marriage
            - Quit nagging.
            - Don't expect praise or appreciation.
            - Fight right.
            - No dumping.
            - Give proofs of love.
      March – Aim Higher – Work
            - Launch a blog.
            - Enjoy the fun of failure.
            - Ask for help.
            - Work smart.
            - Enjoy now.
      April – Lighten Up – Parenthood
            - Sing in the morning.
            - Acknowledge the reality of people's feelings.
            - Be a treasure house of happy memories
            - Take time for projects.
      May – Be Serious About Play – Leisure
            - Find more fun.
            - Take time to be silly.
            - Go off the path.
            - Start a collection.
      June – Make Time for Friends – Friendship
            - Remember birthdays.
            - Be generous.
            - Show up.
            - Don't gossip.
            - Make three new friends.
      July – Buy Some Happiness – Money
            - Indulge in a modest splurge.
            - Buy needful things.
            - Spend out.
            - Give something up.
      August – Contemplate the Heavens – Eternity
            - Read memoirs of catastrophe.
            - Keep a gratitude notebook.
            - Imitate a spiritual master.
      September – Pursue a Passion – Books
            - Write a novel.
            - Make time.
            - Forget about results.
            - Master a new technology.
      October – Pay Attention – Mindfulness
            - Meditate on koans.
            - Examine True Rules.
            - Stimulate the mind in new ways.
            - Keep a food diary.
      November – Keep a Contented Heart – Attitude
            - Laugh out loud.
            - Use good manners.
            - Give positive reviews.
            - Find an area of refuge.
      December – Boot Camp Perfect – Happiness
            - Boot Camp Perfect

One element that I found to be mixed at best was her inclusion of comments from her blog about these various items. These range from the vaguely interesting to the totally pointless … to the extent that I began to wonder if some were selected to simply be a shout-out to her favorite followers (although anonymously). Also, as self-focused as the book is, she indulges in a lot of “before” descriptions … and the over-all take-away is that she was not the most pleasant person to be around … she details a lot of ways she was one of those folks one tries hard to avoid in a social setting (hey, she was a lawyer, I guess it goes with the territory).

To hit some “highlights” … in January's “Toss, restore, organize.” it turns out that she's a maniac for throwing stuff out … she even talks about badgering her friends to let her come over and clean out their closets. In February's “Quit nagging.” it becomes pretty evident that this was a particular item she had to pay attention to. One has to figure when she starts out March with “Launch a blog.”, she's talking about her situation, as blogging is not something that I'd recommend to all and sundry! Admittedly, she does frequently note that this is “her stuff” and that other folks need to figure out what's going to support their happiness, but a lot of this still comes across as “dictates” from on high. April's “Sing in the morning.” really reflects her having two young daughters (ages seven and one) when writing this … I'm not sure that the same strategies would work with a surly 15-year-old. You'd think that somebody who was such an anti-clutter person wouldn't come up with May's “Start a collection.”, but she makes an exception, and recommends that everybody have one “junk drawer” and one empty shelf. In June's “Don't gossip.” Rubin tells more tales on herself, as this appears to have been a favorite activity for her at one point. One of the odder concepts here is July's “Spend out.”, which is both related to giving/spending without expectation of return, and “using the good stuff” (be that napkins or perfume). One of the points that has widest applicability is August's “Keep a gratitude notebook.”, which is pretty self-explanatory, and a very good idea. One that is hardly “for everybody” is September's “Write a novel.” … which starts out with somebody introducing her to NaNoWriMo. October's “Meditate on koans.” isn't quite as doctrinally Zen as one might expect (hope), as she notes having her own file of koan-like phrases from literature that she seems to prefer than the classics. November's “Give positive reviews.” isn't just trying to be a Jedi mind trick on people like me, but is more admission on her part that she always was trying to “look smart” by tearing things down. Her “Boot Camp Perfect.” in December was simply trying to do ALL these things all the time … which I guess worked better than one might think.

Needless to say, The Happiness Project was not the book for me, but I guess it (and the author's web site, and podcast, and articles in various outlets) is wildly popular with other sorts of people. If I was going to be really sarcastic, I'd suggest that the subtitle of this is “how a millionaire managed to minimize her ennui and call that being happy”, but then that wouldn't let her name-check Aristotle and play up her Ivy League education, would it?

Since this does have its audience, it's still in print (in the hardcover, no less), and the on-line big boys have it at about a quarter off of its relatively hefty cover price. Fortunately (and, trust me, this is how I got it), the new/used guys have “like new” copies for a penny (plus shipping, of course). There were parts of this that I liked, but the “Eloise at The Plaza” vibe became frequently irritating. However, since I'm a cranky old guy who hates self-improvement books … “your mileage may vary”.

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Tags: book review

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