26 Oct 2015
It’s a little bit rare for me these days to write an entire post about what I’m reading. But this book deserves it. I picked up Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project during a gleeful memoir spree while we were in Aspen (I love the library in Aspen SO much). I only read a few chapters before we had to leave town, but I always hoped I’d find it at our (stellar) library in Pasadena. Finally I remembered! And I devoured it.
I think I liked it so much because I agree that little things can make us very happy. I am a big believer in the idea that ordinary life is full of magic, that the quotidian often trumps the special, that everyday sights and sounds are very much worth celebrating. I am not a quote person at all, but I came across this one a few weeks ago that really sums it up for me:
“Normal day, let me be aware of the treasure you are. Let me learn from you, love you, bless you before you depart. Let me not pass you by in quest of some rare and perfect tomorrow. Let me hold you while I may, for it may not always be so. One day I shall dig my nails into the earth, or bury my face in the pillow, or stretch myself taut, or raise my hands to the sky and want, more than all the world, your return.” -Mary Jean Irion
And I think it sums it up for Rubin as well. Her motivation is that she doesn’t want her life to pass her by without her being grateful for it, without her really living it. I could not agree more, and, luckily, grateful people are happy people. It’s probably the most circular Venn diagram you could ever create. Like Rubin, I am happy, and I am grateful, but I am always open to new ideas about how to be more of both.
I can honestly say that this book has been transformative for me, primarily in getting me to do little things that don’t take long, but can make your whole day feel better. I never really feel like clearing away Micah’s toys at the end of the day, but it makes our living space feel so much more expansive, and it is so utterly nice to wake up to a clean house. It even somehow makes the day feel more expansive, as if it holds more possibility. It’s also been really helpful for me to try to keep our kitchen table clear of clutter. I don’t always succeed at that one (newspapers and mail and half-finished projects seem to multiply all the time), but that clean slate of a table is one that I feel I can use, and one that gives me great pleasure, however fleeting it might be. I am no big fan of washing Micah’s highchair tray and bib, but I like it even less when I am trying to do it in a hurry because he is hungry. Now I do it right away, and it makes mealtime so much smoother.
Part of this clearing up is more practical, since it allows me to actually use the spaces in our home. I spent one afternoon clearing my cluttered desk and another organizing the chaos of my craft table. It makes me so happy to see these little islands of order, and I am so much more likely to use them now. I think this kind of task is having a cultural moment right now, what with our Marie Kondo-ing and our capsule wardrobes and our determination to simplify our lives and enjoy the things we have. But Rubin beat us all to the punch, starting her project in 2006.
One of the best ideas in the book, to my mind, is that if anything takes less than one minute, just do it now. I have started making our bed in the mornings, and now our room feels like this marvelous oasis that I can retreat to during nap time to read and rest. I am really spending a lot more time in there. It is glorious!
I also joked for a long time that I had an unintentional capsule wardrobe because my clothes went straight out of the dryer and into my desk chair, or into neat little folded piles in front of my dresser. Part of the problem was that I couldn’t fit everything into my dresser (now at least partially remedied by some sorting), but the bigger part of the problem was that I just really don’t like hanging up clothes. But I did it! Now I can sit at my desk and not trip over piles of clothes by my dresser. Again, glorious! It is amazing how good these little things make me feel. It’s almost like having a new home, just by being able to use the spaces that were once so cluttered. And you also get the bonus of feeling virtuous for having tackled an annoying task.
Rubin and I are both devotees of the small pleasures: fresh sheets and clean towels, morning rituals and long walks, uncluttered bedside tables and happy little everyday adventures. But of equal importance are the things we do to invest in future happiness. I never skip off with glee to pick up toys or start laundry, but I know it will make me so happy to have it done. It does make me wonder why we often don’t do the things that will make us happy. For instance, Rubin strives to get more sleep, and I know I would feel better if I spent some time stretching every day, but I usually don’t. It makes me wonder if Dostoevsky’s Underground Man isn’t right–is there some pleasure to be found in acting against our own self-interest? Or is it just that we derive a greater pleasure now by not doing something that will make us happy later? Probably the latter, I think, or else 95% of the internet wouldn’t exist (you know, that 95% you’re always reading when you should be going to bed or starting the dishes). Ah, well. We are human after all. But I am trying to think more about future happiness when faced with everyday tasks. The other day Eric and I were on a brunch date (yay!), and I said to him, “I want to do something really crazy.” “You have my attention,” he said. I leaned in and confided, “I want to take down all the light fixtures and wash them. They’re covered with dust.” Eric didn’t think that was particularly crazy, but it sort of seems that way when there are so many other pressing obligations in the day. Still, I will feel so happy every time I look up at them and don’t see years’ worth of dust!
I am also experimenting with changing my attitude by changing my thinking. There are plenty of tiresome tasks in our lives, but the drudgery can be countered by grateful thinking. I would really love to sleep in someday, but every morning when I hear Micah happily talking to himself in his crib, I remind myself of what an intense joy he is, and how utterly grateful I am that he is healthy and happy. Every time I have to do some annoying thing with the car, I remind myself how much easier that car makes my life. This isn’t to say that our negative feelings aren’t valid, but just that they needn’t ruin our days if we can channel them in a more positive direction.
Some of the key points in Rubin’s theory of happiness are the importance of growth and learning new things, as well as helping and being kind to others. Of course, beautifully, everyone is different and will have their own individual paths to happiness. For me, I know I am happier on a daily basis when I am making things with my hands, when I’m reading, when I’m writing, when I’ve got a home that feels like a clean slate, when I’m learning new things or seeing new places (or seeing old places with new eyes). I think it’s key to be realistic, and it’s true that not all of those things are possible every day, but some of them really are. It would be really easy to say, “Well, I have a baby, I can’t really be expected to do much these days.” But the thing is that this is my life right now, and I know that I will mourn its passing when my sweet boy is grown up. Why not do everything I can to enjoy it to the fullest?
None of this is really revolutionary, of course, but that’s kind of the point. The best part of all this wisdom is that it is all renewable–there will always be a long trip, a harvest season, a new baby, or a job change that will throw these little things to the very end of the priority list. And then we can take joy in rediscovering them. I am not foolish enough to imagine that my desk and craft table will not need re-clearing by the end of the year. But instead of dreading it, I am looking forward to the wonderful feeling I know I will have when I get them in order again.
And, as if this weren’t already the world’s longest blog post, I have a concern. I was, frankly, not terribly impressed with Rubin’s husband, so I looked at Amazon reviews of the book to see if anyone else had the same visceral reaction I did. (I don’t know, maybe I am just spoiled in the husband department? Probably. But if my husband did and said some of the things her husband does and says…let’s just say it would be a real impediment to my happiness.) I was rather horrified to see numerous reviews stating that Rubin is an annoying neurotic nag, and that her husband should get a medal for putting up with her. What?! It is a brave thing to publish a book about personal self-improvement. Rubin mentions her husband’s faults, yes, but she spends far more time and detail on hers. I couldn’t help but wonder if the response would be the same if Rubin were a man? Benjamin Franklin also had a boatload of faults, and yet people see him as inspiring and upstanding. This disturbs me.
Another common complaint was that we have nothing to learn from Rubin because she is a rich, skinny white lady. What?! This statement particularly rankles the literature teacher in me, who has heard too many times, “Why read F. Scott Fitzgerald? He was a drunk.” Separating a work from the biography of a writer is the very first step toward achieving an insightful reading of any text. (The author can be brought back in later to add to analysis, but should never be the basis of an entire reading.) Rubin is upfront about her life situation and is not trying to hide anything in that regard. Yes, she is lucky to be able to do this work, but you know what? She does a great job at it. I would love to spend a year researching this stuff, but since I don’t have time, I am happy to let her do it for me. More importantly, it truly isn’t money that brings happiness to people. Arguably, it’s some of the wealthiest people who are the most unhappy on an ontological level. Yes, we need to acknowledge the baseline happiness our circumstances provide (and research does indicate that a modest amount of money–enough to cover our basic needs–is necessary for happiness, but more money does not make us happier): we have homes and health and family and friends. To a certain extent, these privileges are what allow us to contemplate any higher meaning or art–the same way that hunter-gatherers did not create cave paintings until they had food to eat and a place to sleep at night. It is a privilege to be able to devote our minds to higher concerns, that is true, and this is a truth worth recognizing and being thankful for.
The reviews in The New York Times were even more upsetting. They seemed to gently mock Rubin for focusing on this project, the more barbed of them suggesting that trying to be happy, to be more present and grateful, is a moral wrong. These reviews also harped upon Rubin’s privilege, actually suggesting that Rubin and her project are disingenuous because her house is bigger than the houses on the cover of The Happiness Project. This, I confess, made my blood boil. There is always some mockery of self-help books, but deciding that Rubin is not qualified to speak to us about happiness because she happens to be wealthy is both petty and ridiculous. And there is nothing Rubin is doing that really requires a lot of money. I never once thought, “Oh, huh, I’m not rich, so I can’t do that.” Instead, her project is really about making decisions on a very small personal level to enjoy and be more grateful for the lives we have. We can all do that, regardless of income bracket, and Rubin’s does not disqualify her discoveries. The thing about small pleasures is that they’re scaleable. I kind of thought that when she mentioned a modest splurge, it would be some kind of $400 purse (for some, it is a modest splurge). What did she buy? A box of roller ball pens. A boxed set of some of her favorite books. A drawing class. My modest splurges almost always occur at the thrift store, where I never have to feel guilty about them, or when traveling, which is, frankly, my favorite kind of modest splurge anyway. But there were times in my life (grad school!) when a $2 cup of coffee was a weekly treat I always looked forward to. I think we all know, on some level, that money doesn’t buy happiness. What makes us happy, I think, in connection with money, is the idea that we are doing some small good thing for ourselves, whether it’s a weekend away or a new candle.
I saved the most concerning point for last. This is an actual quote from an article about Rubin in The New York Times: “And to those who may feel daunted by how she does it all — the charts, the reading, writing, exercising, volunteering, socializing, parenting, scrapbooking and glue-gunning? Relax. She has a sitter and a housecleaner.” I am really kind of appalled that The Times would publish this. First of all, would we ever ask this of a man? No! And secondly, are they shaming her for working full time and having childcare? Yes, yes, they are. Is this ever going to end? My goodness, I hope so. This is a tightrope I think every mother walks. In my case, I am currently staying home with my baby. Should I feel guilty for not working? When I start working again, should I feel guilty for not staying home? These decisions (and their attendant emotions) are difficult enough without criticism being leveled from every direction, toward every decision.
As to the housekeeper, who cares? I have a lot of things in my life that others would probably consider luxuries: a husband who does all the dishes, a baby who sleeps through the night, a gym I can walk to. Does that mean that nothing I say about building happiness and contentment in my life is of value?
But there is something even more alarming about this quote. Isn’t it really saying that what a woman should be doing is raising children and cleaning the house? …IT IS. IN THE YEAR 2010. If I weren’t five years late to the game, you’d better believe I’d be writing a letter to the editor.To be clear, I don’t mean to say that Rubin’s work shouldn’t be subjected to fair criticism (I read her second book, for instance, and found it be a mostly unnecessary retread of her first). I do find it very upsetting, though, that both popular opinion and multiple reporters at the newspaper of record have chosen to harp on some aspect of Rubin as a person in order to discredit all of her work. Frankly, it is as unprofessional as it is insulting and unfair.
I didn’t set out to write an essay about gender equality, but my goodness, every now and again I am just hit right in the face with devastating evidence that things are just not the same for women and men. We can do better. Let’s do better. I really do think it would make us all, dare I say, happier.