A few months ago, I was in Anthropologie. I picked up a book that looked interesting, opened it in the middle and started to read. The author was talking about happiness, and the chapter I had opened to was about money and happiness. I only read a few pages, but I remember the author talking about how people have different approaches to purchasing - that they tend to be either satisficers or maximizers - Satisficers have criteria they are seeking to meet with their purchases (eg: I need a red shirt, not too low cut, flattering) and once they find something that meets their criteria they buy it. Maximisers, on the other hand, think I am looking for the ideal red shirt and will leave no stone unturned until they find it. The interesting thing about this phenomenon is that satisficers tend to be happier with their purchases, because the maximiser may have bought something nicer, cheaper, whatever than the satisficer but they are still thinking what if there was something better out there and I missed it?
"Huh!" I thought. "Interesting". And I kept reading, and there were quite a few other things that made me go "Huh!" again. And then I put the book down, and continued my quest for the perfect red shirt.
I found myself thinking about this book quite a few times over the next few weeks. I told my mum about it - my parents are trying to build a house and can't quite make up their minds about what it is that they need. I even used the concept I'd read to bring my 6 month sofa search to an abrupt end by saying to J: "Hey! This perfectly adequate sofa is hugely reduced! Let's just buy it!" and we did, and we're really happy with it. Without this book, I suspect I would still be googling "UK sofa vintage leather" in my spare time and frankly I'm glad I'm not.
Now, I wanted to read the rest of the book. Of course, I had no idea at all what the book was called, or who wrote it. And I wasn't motivated enough to do anything useful like call the store (which is in London), ask them to open up all their books to the middle, find which one talks about purchasing styles and then post it to me. So I kind of forgot about it.
Then, on Saturday, I was in London again, vaguely cruising for the perfect handbag. I found myself in Anthropologie again and there it was! The book!
It's by Gretchen Rubin, and it's called The Happiness Project*.
I forgot all about my handbag quest, went to the till and gleefully purchased it.
Then I got it out to read and thought what have I done? She's got this lovely, perfect life and she wants me to follow along on her quest to be more happy? Give me a break! and then I saw that someone had compared it to Eat, Pray, Love on the back cover and my heart sank even further because while I've never actually read that book, I've read this and enough similar opinions to make me pretty sure I would hate it. So I'm thinking Okay, it's got some good stuff about shopping but what have I done?
And then I started to actually read it, and it was wonderful. It's not a book about depression or adversity. She is very open about the fact that she has a great life, and talks a lot about happiness as a duty. My life is great, she is saying, I ought to be happy. I have no excuse not to be. And so she spends a year alters her own attitudes and actions. The most surprising thing about this book is that she is largely focusing on altering herself, not her circumstances. She writes about becoming happier in her marriage not by finding someone else but with the resolutions: Quit nagging, don't expect praise or appreciation, fight right, no dumping and give proofs of love. It's not about trying to change him, but changing herself. Each month focuses on a different area of life. I liked that she is so honest about how difficult this was. If she had said, at the end of the month 'and then everything was PERFECT' I would have been ill inclined to keep reading. But it's not that simple. She acknowledges all the complexities, and keeps on going.
When I began to love the book, I did find myself wondering, at times, how well this totally secular quest for happiness fits into my Christian worldview. Should I be loving this book as much as I am? She's wanting to be happy, but largely ignoring God. (I'm a Presbyterian at heart. We struggle with these things). And it's true that I did find the chapter on 'Contemplate The Heavens' the least satisfying. She learns a lot from reading about a saint, but has made what must be a very deliberate decision to totally leave out any discussion of God himself. Commercially, this was probably a very good choice, but I found myself thinking 'there is so much more here!' But while I was reading about her efforts to be happier - which are largely efforts in unselfishness - I found myself thinking that a lot of what she is striving for is what the bible describes as the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, patience, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. This book is full of practical wisom on encouraging these characteristics - that has to be a good thing. And Christians, we should be happiest of all, and so often we are not. Sometimes I say I'm looking for 'contentment' in life, when really what I mean is that I'm trying to spiritualise my grumbling. As a Christian, I felt hugely convicted by this very secular book - she is absolutely right. Happiness is a duty. Not selfishness, but happiness. When I confuse the two, I'm getting something very wrong.
I found this book compelling because so many of her struggles are my struggles. A sharp tongue. Cynicism. Well, when I say struggles, often I'm not struggling at all, I'm just coasting along and not dealing with them.
A quote she comes back to several times is: "It is easy to be heavy, difficult to be light". I keep finding myself thinking about this. I know how easy I find it to become negative about things. For me, this is the lazy option. It really is difficult to be light. And sometimes, recognising something as difficult is a good start in moving towards it. It's easy to think 'perhaps I'm not that way because I'm just not made that way'. But no - for me, I'm not that way because too often I'm lazy about it. I find it easy to think about what upsets me, what annoys me. I've always had trouble with Philippians 4:8: "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." I'm rarely thinking about such things. I'm usually criticising them in my head, instead.
This might make it sound like the book is very po-faced and worthy - it doesn't feel like that at all. It's about happiness, and it's a very happy book. One of the concrete ways she becomes happier is by targeting her time more effectively. This reminded me of the rule that J and I have for ordering in restaurants -we always look at the menu, look at each other and then say "order what you DO want, not what you think you SHOULD want". Sometimes this means I end up having a burger, even though it's a fish restaurant, but you know what? It really works. She's basically applying this principle to time - do what you DO want in your free time, not what you think you SHOULD want. Why didn't I think of focusing like that? Well, I will from now on.
I mentioned above that I felt like I was reading about my own personality struggles. Well, my most surprising moment of self-recognition was when she admitted to eating brown sugar straight out of the jar. I thought I was the only person who did that! (Yeah, don't accept cake at my house). I found myself convinced that she must be my soul sister, my long lost BFF. And I guess that is the joy of her writing - I suspect she will make you feel like that too, even if you don't have the same sugar issues that I have. She says often that what she is learning to stop being someone else, but instead to 'be Gretchen'. At the end of this book, after spending a year watching her learn about happiness, I wanted to be Gretchen. But not like a stalker, I hasten to add.
It's hard to review this book properly, because I think my babies have just woken up and there is still so much that I want to rave about. I particularly liked her secrets of adulthood - too long to type them all out here, but they're along the same lines as my restaurant rule above. Some of my favourites were bring a sweater, what's fun for other people might not be fun for you, over the counter medicinces can be very effective and people actually prefer that you buy wedding gifts off their registry. Ah, so true.
Have you realised that I think you should all read this? Since I can't forcibly march you all to the shop to buy a copy, I'm going to do the next best thing. I've never done this before, but it's my 200th post and I'm feeling a bit giddy so I'm having a giveaway. I'm going to give away a copy of this book to one of you, yes you. I'll choose a winner using a random number generator. You can live wherever you like - I don't think anybody reads this in the UK so if I closed it to international readers I would be buying a second copy for myself. I'll order the book from Amazon in your country (or post it if you don't have Amazon) so it doesn't matter. Just leave me a comment with your name - and you get an extra entry if you also leave me your favourite happiness tip, or one of your own secrets of adulthood.
You've got a week - comments close next Friday at 12pm GMT.
By the way, I've just done one of her resolutions, from November - give positive reviews. And do you know what? I do feel happier.
*Having just found this on Amazon to link, I've seen that it was a New York Times #1 bestseller. I guess that means everyone else has already read it and I'm terribly behind. I'm trying not to think negative thoughts about that.