Reflections on Gretchen Rubin’s “The Happiness Project”

happiness-projectRecently, two things happened: First, I talked to my dad about, well, life. Secondly, I read Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project.

I’m not depressed, but there are a lot of things in my life right now that tend to stress me out, and prompt endless list-writing. So. Many. To-dos.

In the conversation with my dad, we talked about various frustrations—how my car is a money-sucking death trap, how my living situation is less-than-ideal, how I don’t have a consistent enough schedule to get a job—and my general lack of peace of mind. In a Joseph Campbell-inspired bout of guru-ness, he suggested that I spend sometime alone in a quiet, indoor place. I laughed/cried. It’s funny/sad because I don’t have any peaceful indoor place (my own head included).

Instead, I said I’d identify some other means of lightening my load. And I started with Rubin.

Rubin’s The Happiness Project was on the bestseller list for almost a year. In a Reader’s Digest-esque summary, Rubin spends a year following resolutions to improve her happiness and general demeanor. And then writes about it. It’s a forced memoir (I don’t usually like that sort of thing—It’s like writing a news story knowing what you want the outcome to be), but an eloquent one at that.

Rubin and I share an appreciation for lists, Elizabeth Gilbert, and a justifiable splurge. And we also share a short temper, lots of mental clutter, and a sometimes-not-so-positive craving for perfection. She also writes like she’s talking at a cocktail party, recanting her year of happiness (and thus has a natural, light, and almost cheeky tone). She laughs at herself. And she ends each chapter on a cheeky upswing.

So I loved it (and her).

Her book prompts the reader to consider some personal truths. Perhaps because I haven’t written “brain barf” in a long while, I thought I’d share mine. Rubin identifies eight splendid truths of happiness, and the first reads:

“To be happier, you have to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right in an atmosphere of growth.”

HER PROMPTS and MY REFLECTIONS:

What makes you feel good? What activities do you find fun, satisfying, or energizing?

In the margin of the book, I scribbled: writing for fun, cooking, viewing art that I’ve studied (especially Van Gogh, who struck a chord when I saw his exhibit in Amsterdam—amazing), writing lists, and accomplishing goals. It’s hard for me to list specific things because I limit myself. I love interior design and transforming my bedroom, but that costs a lot of money, so I don’t do it. I like traveling alone, but it’s kind of weird and very expensive, so I don’t indulge.

What makes you feel bad? What are sources of anger, irritation, boredom, frustration, or anxiety in your life?

On this one, I scribbled: feeling inadequate or less intelligent. For the first, I can pinpoint specific times when I’ve been made to feel inadequate—and it sucks. I like the satisfaction of outlining, pursuing, and accomplishing goals. I like challenge. I like learning. So whenever opportunities like that fall through the cracks or are made extraordinarily difficult, I get frustrated, or bored, or whatever. No bueno.

Is there any way you don’t feel right about your life? Do you wish you could change your job, city, family situation, or other circumstances?

On this one, I feel pretty good, honestly. I have previously felt a little out of whack, but I like to think that I take care to ensure that I am pursuing my whims and whatnot. When I questioned my commitment to journalism, I took a hiatus (read: Paris) and “discovered” an interest and passion for broadcast.

Do you have sources of an atmosphere of growth? In what elements of your life do you find progress, learning, challenge, improvement, and increased mastery?

In this aspect, I’m much like my mom, who loves taking classes—on anything from Spanish to mushroom foraging to sausage making. Right now, this “growth” aspect is easy because I’m in college, where the entire curriculum is based around growth. Moving forward, I think this growth aspect is especially important to keep in mind, because the feeling of accomplishment is one of my most reliable sources of happiness. Post grad, this could be in the form of a book club, fitness classes, traveling, adult classes, cooking classes—even challenges, like cooking all the recipes in a cookbook a la Julie and Julia. Whatever floats my boat, right?

What I’m Reading: Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Cutting for Stone. By Abraham Verghese. VINTAGE.

I have this theory… Oftentimes, I opt to read nonfiction books because they are easy to relate to, easy to get through, and because I think that nonfiction books are more consistently good.

But if I’m being honest, fiction is my true love. Though some novels are too dense or too unimportant, un-relatable, some are extraordinary. Fiction books may not be as consistent, but when they’re good, they’re great.

And every once in a while, a novel tend to sneak up and surround me in its quiet embrace. What starts as simply another book turns into a mild obsession. I read while I walk to work, I read on the train, I read while hanging out with my friends. I carry the book around me even when I’m not reading it. Without it, I feel like I’m missing a limb.

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese is equal parts comforting and lovey-dovey, but also harshly realistic and honest about the mistakes of fate. And while it took me more than a month to finish (Eek!), I blame working weird hours and not the book itself.

It begins in Ethiopia with the births of two conjoined twins, and follows one—Marion—through his loss, his love, his naivety, struggle, and his journey home—wherever that may be. It’s a carefully crafted, “Hero’s Journey”-esque book, rich with historic detail (real and imagined) and personal experience. The author, himself a doctor from Ethiopia spent years interviewing and researching a variety of subjects, and his thorough work is evident.

But what takes Cutting for Stone to the level of greatness isn’t the careful compiling of historical facts; it’s the careful compiling of sentences.

Sometimes the words in his book read more like poetry than narrative, which is exactly what makes the book so engrossing. In his “Acknowledgements,” Verghese credits many phrases to authors, poets, experiences, even Shakespeare. He put in just as much work an effort into the crafting and presentation of his words as to his story—something, as a writer, I can’t help but be in awe of.

Marion’s story, written by anyone else, would be sad but forgettable, good. But paired with Verghese’s carefully chosen diction, it’s great.