The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. But in case you've somehow missed it, here it is plain and obvious: I love that book. It was one of my favorite books of 2012, I think about some aspect of it almost daily (not kidding), and I feel like it really did empower me to be ME. So it should come as no surprise that I absolutely had to read Happier at Home, a sequel of sorts that came out last September. Of course I did. The alternative (that would be not reading it) wasn't even considered.
And if it was possible, I was even more excited starting this one than when I started The Happiness Project. Partly because I knew what a treat I was in for, but also because her focus with this project was being happier at home, which, since I'm a stay-at-home mom, is where I spend the majority of my day.
Gretchen's first project lasted a full year and went from January through December. This one followed the school year and began in September and ended in May. She followed the same format as the first project, where she selected a theme, or focus, for each month (marriage, parenthood, neighborhood, etc.) and then outlined specific goals ("give gold stars," "underreact to a problem," "be a tourist without leaving home," etc.).
I think one reason I love these books so much is that I feel a certain kinship with Gretchen (which is why I can't seem to refer to her by just her last name). Maybe if we met in real life, we would find we wouldn't have anything in common, but more likely, I suspect we'd have a lot in common, but I'd just be so far her inferior that I wouldn't be able to carry on an intelligent conversation with her. At any rate, this book probably would not resonate so deeply with me except that her goals and interests and fears and weaknesses so closely match mine that reading about them is far more interesting to me than it would be if I were reading about someone who decided to increase their happiness by traveling extensively or getting a makeover or planning elaborate parties.
I'm not going to go through and list all the ways I think Gretchen and I are similar--that would not only be boring but also look extremely pretentious. But I will just mention one because it surprised me and also made me feel not so...weird. In October, Gretchen's focus is "marriage," and one of the ways she decides to improve her marriage is by taking driving lessons (so she can share this responsibility with her husband). Although she knows how to drive (and in the past, drove daily in such big cities as Kansas City and Washington D.C.), ever since moving to New York City, she has let her husband handle all of the driving. Not only is she a little anxious and scared to drive, she just doesn't like it. Oh, how I can relate! I have never liked driving and basically only got my license when I was 18 so I'd have some form of ID before going to college. I got away without driving for several years, but after having Aaron, I knew I had to do something about my fear; Mike couldn't chauffeur me around to every playdate, doctor's appointment, and shopping venture. I forced myself to get in the car, and now, several years later, driving doesn't scare me half to death (although I still don't like underground parking or freeway interchanges), but, like Gretchen, I still don't like it. In the book, she comes to accept that driving will never be something she loves, and I don't think I'll ever love it either, but I've definitely come to a point that I'm okay with it. (Yes, I did just compare New York City driving to Salt Lake City driving, but give me a break.)
As I mentioned in my first review, for all the ways I feel my personality is similar to Gretchen Rubin's, we differ in one (pretty important) way: Where she is not religious really at all, my religion is a very important part of my life and, indeed, how I define myself. In fact, who I am is so completely entwined with my relationship with my Heavenly Father that I don't know who I even would be if I took away that part of my life. So if anything is lacking from this book for me, it is the spiritual side of it (which is why I loved reading about Melanie's happiness project because it's everything Gretchen's project is but with the spiritual dimension added).
I wanted to mention just a few of Gretchen's goals that really impacted me personally:
"Make the positive argument" was one of Gretchen's goals in October when she decided to focus on her marriage. She noticed that so often when she got annoyed with her husband, it triggered other annoyances. I've noticed this in my own life as well. Sometimes I think, "Mike forgot to take out the trash," and that leads to, "He also didn't pick up his clothes in the bathroom," and that is invariably followed by, "He left the bed unmade, too, even though he was the last one up." Gretchen says that people can usually take either side of an argument and make a good case for it and that flipping our point of view can do wonders to fix the problem. So for example, if I'm thinking, "Mike is not a helpful person because of this, this, and this," I can just as easily say, "Mike is a helpful person because of that, that, and that." This is something so small and simple, but you wouldn't believe the way it instantly changes the way I feel about someone or something.
In January, Gretchen's focus was time, and one of her goals was to "suffer for fifteen minutes," which basically boiled down to forcing herself to spend fifteen minutes a day on something she had been putting off and didn't want to do. I always feel so much happier when I get rid of those little nagging tasks, but I like the idea of only spending fifteen minutes a day on it because then I'm not worried I'm going to be toiling away for hours on something that's not fun.
I loved her idea in March (focus: family) to "follow a threshold ritual," which means that anytime she comes home, she thinks this thought: "How happy I am, how grateful I am, to be home." I really like the idea of building happiness in your life just by implementing little rituals that force you to remember what you're grateful for. It reminds me of my grandma who told me that anytime I saw beautiful clouds, I should think of her, and to this day, even though she died more than ten years ago, whenever I see beautiful, fluffy white clouds, I can instantly see her face and hear her voice.
I have to say I chuckled about her goal to perform "nonrandom acts of kindness." She said that while random acts of kindness bring happiness to the giver, the emotion they usually arouse in the receiver is one of suspicion. I totally agree! And I also think that even when I don't react suspiciously to a random gift, I'm usually happier when I know who it actually was who was thinking about me.
Some reviews have mentioned that this book was too similar to The Happiness Project. I agree that even though the goals are different, a lot of the information is the same (the references to her commandments, Secrets of Adulthood, and Splendid Truths, as well as some of her research and frustrations with her own shortcomings). However, this repetition didn't bother me a bit. In fact, I was very grateful she did repeat as much as she did. I had been debating rereading The Happiness Project but instead I got to read a new book that still had all of the ideas I loved and wanted to be reminded of plus some new things to hold my attention.
As much as I have loved Gretchen's books, I have to admit, I haven't loved her website. I've looked at it a few times, but honestly, it doesn't feel like it's written by the same person. The ideas are all the same, but I don't feel the same passion or originality underneath. I can't explain it, and the only reason I'm bringing it up here is just in case any of you have looked at her website and decided based on that, that you probably wouldn't like the book. I just don't think you can compare the two.
Even though I have gushed about her work several times, I do realize that her books aren't for everyone, particularly I think they might not be helpful if you've been through an especially tragic trial, like losing a loved one or dealing with a life-threatening illness. I could be wrong, but it seems like in such a case, some of her goals and commentary might just seem a little superficial and naive. I hope I'm not dissuading you from reading it--I just wanted to add that caveat and also say that you won't hurt my feelings if you don't love it because I can totally see how someone might not.
And now, just when you thought I might not ever be quiet, guess what? I'm almost done. Towards the end of the book, Gretchen makes this statement, and I think it captures one of the reasons why I am so inspired by her happiness projects: "I do best what comes naturally. When I pursue a goal that's right for me, my progress comes quickly and easily; when I pursue a goal that's wrong for me, my progress feels blocked. Now I try not to fight that sense of paralysis, but rather see it as a helpful clue to self-knowledge." Lately I've been more willing to embrace the real me and also strive for the me I want to become.