One April morning, while staring out the blurry rain-splattered window of a city bus, American blogger and bestselling author Gretchen Rubin had a sudden realization: she was in danger of wasting her life. “What do I want from life, anyway?” she asked herself. “Well,” she sighed, “I want to be happy.”
Not long after, she began to identify the things that brought her joy, satisfaction, and engagement and made twelve sets of resolutions – each one designed to boost her happiness in a separate sphere of life, and each one reserved for a different month of the year. Then came the challenging part: keeping the resolutions. “The Happiness Project” tells that story. Get ready to hear it!
January: Boost energy (vitality)
Rubin decided to start her year of happiness by focusing on energy and vitality. “I know that when I feel energetic,” she writes, “I find it much easier to behave in ways that make me happy.” So, for January, she wrote down five resolutions – two for her physical energy, two for her mental vigor, and one that combines both. These are the resolutions she made:
- Go to sleep earlier. Easier said than done but, as Rubin realized, turning off the lights (all the lights!) helps. So, she stopped doing activities such as paying bills, answering emails and watching TV in bed. She tried getting ready for bed well before her bedtime and even forced sleep with sedatives such as Ambien when nothing else worked. After a week or so of more sleep, she began to feel a real difference.
- Exercise better. According to Rubin, people who exercise “are healthier, think more clearly, sleep better, and have delayed onset of dementia.” Four reasons to buy a pedometer, track yourself walking to work daily, and hit the gym!
- Toss, restore, organize. A large part of the clutter in your life is literal. Rubin learned that clearing out the visible clutter – in your room, your apartment, your office – can clear away some of the detritus in your mind as well.
- Tackle a nagging task. Clutter-clearing your living and working space makes way for clutter-clearing your brain. As you have probably experienced, unfinished tasks can drain your energy and make you feel guilty. So, make a to-do list now, and start ticking items off one by one.
- Act more energetic. Studies show that by acting as if you feel more energetic, you can become more energetic. Believe it or not, this “fake it till you feel it” strategy worked for Rubin. So, why shouldn’t it work for you, too?
February: Remember love (marriage)
Contrary to popular belief, “marital satisfaction drops substantially after the first child arrives.” So, Rubin reserved the second month of her happiness project to do something about this. These were her five resolutions for February:
- Quit nagging. Nagging is annoying. Put an end to it by being more appreciative of the things your partner actually does and less judgmental in relation to the tasks they don’t complete. Even better, don’t assign tasks at all!
- Don’t expect praise or appreciation. Sometimes, nagging means expecting more praise from your partner. As Rubin found out, if you expect less, you’ll be happier when it comes your way.
- Fight right. Some disagreement in marriage is inevitable and even valuable. However, as American divorce psychologist John Gottman realized, “how a couple fights matters more than how much they fight.” “Couples who fight right tackle only one difficult topic at a time,” Rubin explains, “instead of indulging in arguments that cover every grievance since the first date.” Don’t ever forget that!
- No dumping. Some people – usually men – have a low standard for what qualifies as intimacy. So, when their partners – usually women – dump all their insecurities in their lap, they don’t really know how to react. Keep this in mind if you are more like the latter. Restrain yourself whenever you can.
- Give proofs of love. Small gestures make big shifts in the tone of human interactions. Treat the people you love tenderly and lovingly – they won’t be around forever. For one week in February – “the week of extreme nice” – Rubin did just that. She gave and gave and asked nothing in return. And she felt great about it!
March: Aim higher (work)
“Happiness is a critical factor for work,” writes Rubin, “and work is a critical factor for happiness.” This doesn’t have to be a catch-22 if you follow Rubin’s five resolutions for March:
- Launch a blog. This was Rubin’s way to introduce something new to her line of work – she kept a blog detailing her Happiness Project. You don’t have to start a blog, of course. However, whatever you start doing, be sure to make it challenging and novel, as those are the two key elements of happiness.
- Enjoy the fun of failure. Failure is a stepping stone to success. To make herself believe this, Rubin kept repeating the following mantra: “It’s fun to fail. It’s part of being ambitious; it’s part of being creative. If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.”
- Ask for help. Benjamin Franklin, along with 12 friends, formed a club for mutual improvement that met weekly for 40 years. Inspired by him, Rubin did something similar. Why don’t you?
- Work smart. Pay close attention to how you spend your days. Don’t expect to be productive when you work and create. Instead, work and create when you’re naturally productive.
- Enjoy now. If you don’t, happiness will pass you by like a high-speed train.
April: Lighten up (parenthood)
After tackling marriage and work during the winter, Rubin started the spring season of her year of happiness the same way nature does: by lightening up. Aiming to achieve a more joyful atmosphere at home, she decided to become less nagging and more playful with her daughters. She also decided to:
- Sing in the morning. This, she discovered, was mutually beneficial – it made her feel more cheerful and helped her take a lighter tone with her children, even when they were naughty and disobedient.
- Acknowledge the reality of people’s feelings. Inspired by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s parenthood books, Rubin stopped waving off her daughter’s complaints. She also stopped offering them solutions for their problems. Instead, she started acknowledging their feelings. It made all the difference.
- Be a treasure house of happy memories. “Keep happy memories vivid,” advises Rubin. “Recalling happy times helps boost happiness in the present.”
- Take time for projects. Few things connect families more than joint projects such as celebrating family birthdays or sending out family holiday cards. Make room for these kinds of activities. Purchase a laminator. Rubin did, and she never regretted the decision.
May: Be serious about play (leisure)
One of the keys to living a happy life is making time for play – that is to say, “an activity that’s very satisfying, has no economic significance, doesn’t create social harm, and doesn’t necessarily lead to praise or recognition.” Take leisure more seriously. Be deliberate in your resolution and follow these four simple steps:
- Find more fun. Whether it’s watching movies or playing chess, doing crossword puzzles or reading books – introduce more fun in your life by doing these things for their sake only.
- Take time to be silly. Life is too short to take it seriously all the time.
- Go off the path. Don’t ever ignore your extraneous interests. Being too focused on doing something enjoyable makes the activity less enjoyable.
- Start a collection. As Rubin writes, “a collection provides a mission, a reason to visit new places, the excitement of the chase, a field of expertise (no matter how trivial), and, often, a bond with other people.” Plus, it’s fun!
June: Make time for friends (friendship)
“Everyone from contemporary scientists to ancient philosophers agrees that having strong social bonds is probably the most meaningful contributor to happiness,” writes Rubin. Whatever happens, as the Beatles famously sang, you’d get by with a little help from your friends. To have more of them, stick to Rubin’s July resolutions.
- Remember birthdays. This is the bare minimum. Sending out a birthday email ensures that you’re in touch with your friends at least once a year.
- Be generous. Cultivate a generosity of spirit. Help people think big and cut them slack. Bring people together. Contribute.
- Show up. “Eighty percent of success is showing up,” Woody Allen once said. The same holds true for friendships: “unless you make consistent efforts,” warns Rubin, “your friendships aren’t going to survive.”
- Don’t gossip. Gossip serves an important social function and is fun, but certainly not for the person being gossiped about. Put yourself in their shoes.
- Make three new friends. It’s not true you don’t have time to meet new people. You do. And you should.
July: Buy some happiness (money)
As Rubin found out, the question of whether money can buy you happiness or not is the wrong question. The real question is whether money can help you buy happiness. And Rubin says the answer to this is, “if used wisely, undoubtedly yes.” Here are four ways to use money wisely to make yourself happy.
- Indulge in a modest splurge. Or, in the words of Tom and Donna from the television show “Parks and Recreation,” “treat yo’ self.” Rubin vouches for the soundness of this advice. She was immensely happy when the “Wizard’s Super Special” (the complete set of the 15 Oz books by L. Frank Baum) arrived at her house!
- Buy needful things. Be neither an overbuyer nor an underbuyer – just buy what you need. Also, aim to be a satisficer rather than a maximizer. That is, instead of pursuing the optimal decision, devise criteria before you go shopping and stop looking once an item meets them.
- Spend out. Stop hoarding. Use things up, throw them away, or replace them with new items when they stop working.
- Give something up. Sometimes it feels good to let something go. So, try to make a resolution to give up a category of purchases entirely.
August: Contemplate the heavens (eternity)
In August, Rubin decided to turn to the realms of the spiritual. She did three things – and she warmly recommends all of them:
- Read memoirs of catastrophe. To make yourself aware of the brevity of life, try reading more books written by people that have faced death.
- Keep a gratitude notebook. Reading catastrophe memoirs will help you feel more appreciative of your seemingly mundane existence. Make note of it. Start a gratitude journal.
- Imitate a spiritual master. Before doing anything, many dedicated Christians ask themselves what Jesus would do. Take an example from them and start imitating the person you want to become. Rubin’s choice was Saint Thérèse, a French woman who died at the age of 24 from tuberculosis after spending nine years cloistered with some 20 nuns. Known for her “Little Way,” Saint Thérèse achieved heroic virtue, “without going beyond the common order of things.”
September: Pursue a passion (books)
Apparently, some Ancient Greek religious cults used to ask only one question about people after they died: did they have passion? They should have probably added another one: did they act upon it? Because though many people have passions, few act upon them. And that’s where happiness starts. Rubin’s passion were always books, so her four September goals were the following:
- Write a book. And she did – “The Happiness Project.” “You might experiment with new recipes, go camping in your 15th state park, plan a 60th birthday party, or watch your favorite team progress to the Super Bowl,” Rubin writes. “I liked writing a novel.”
- Make time. To make more time to read books she liked, Rubin vowed to stop reading books she didn’t enjoy. Make more time for your passion as well.
- Forget about results. “One thing that makes a passion enjoyable is that you don’t have to worry about results,” writes Rubin. So, don’t. Happiness sometimes comes when you’re free from the pressure to grow.
- Master a new technology. Getting through a learning curve is often painful and hard – but it’s also satisfying. But once you do it, it also makes things fun and exciting!
October: Pay attention (mindfulness)
Mindfulness – the cultivation of conscious, nonjudgmental awareness – is often linked to happiness. Rubin dedicated October to understanding and experiencing this link better. Therefore, she tried to:
- Meditate on koans. Koans are questions or riddles that can’t be understood logically. Since Rubin couldn’t get herself to take up meditation – and since she likes to read and think very much – koans proved to be a great route toward mindfulness. After all, that’s one of the fundamental rules of Buddhism: everyone should find their own way.
- Examine true rules. Whether implicit or explicit, everybody has their own “true rules,” defining their top priorities and goals. If you don’t want to lose yourself on your road to happiness, examine and update them from time to time.
- Stimulate the mind in new ways. As noted, novelty is one of happiness’ best friends. So, try new things, both for your body and your brain! Rubin, for example, tried hypnosis, laughter yoga, and drawing classes. The possibilities are endless.
- Keep a food diary. Merely being conscious of what you are eating makes you eat more mindfully. One way to pay attention to what you are eating is by keeping a food diary. Start one today.
November: Keep a contented heart (attitude)
For November, Rubin decided to focus her energy on cultivating “a lighthearted, loving, and kind spirit.” So, this month was all about cheerfulness. These were her four resolutions:
- Laugh out loud. Find reasons to find things funny and appreciate other people’s humor. Also, make other people laugh as often as you can.
- Use good manners. “Nothing,” wrote Tolstoy, “can make our life, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness.” And in everyday life, says Rubin, kindness takes the form of good manners. Start saying things such as, “Can I help?” “You first” or “No, you take it!”
- Give positive reviews. Being critical can make one more sophisticated and intelligent; but it doesn’t make one happier.
- Find an area of refuge. Rubin’s areas of refuge are Churchill’s speeches and the funny things her husband and her children do. Designate such an area for yourself. Sometimes, escapism is the best way to recharge your batteries.
December: Boot camp perfect (happiness)
For December, Rubin tried putting everything together and decided to stick to all of her previous resolutions all the time – aiming for perfection. The job was tough and demanding, but she never backed off. And even though she never achieved perfection – there were always resolutions she skipped or forgot – the effort itself was enough to make her feel better.
Looking back, she realized that one of her main takeaways from her year-long experiment was that she could change her life without changing her life – just by consciously making the effort to find more happiness and enjoyment in the life she already had.
The four splendid truths
Among other findings, during her happiness project, Rubin discovered four partly paradoxical, but splendid truths. They deserve to be quoted in full:
- “To be happy, you need to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.”
- “One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy; one of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.”
- “The days are long, but the years are short.”
- “You’re not happy unless you think you’re happy.” (Or: you’re happy if you think you’re happy.)
A unique memoir of a unique year, “The Happiness Project” is both enlightening and inspiring. Use it to start your own one!
Use Gretchen’s year-long happiness project as an inspiration to create your own personal project. Start by answering the following four questions: “What makes you feel good?” “What makes you feel bad?” “Is there any way in which you don’t feel right about your life?” and, “Do you have sources of an atmosphere of growth?” Proceed accordingly.