Rubin, Gretchen (2009-12-16). The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun. Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
One April day, on a morning just like every other morning, I had a sudden realization: I was in danger of wasting my life. As I stared out the rain-spattered window of a city bus, I saw that the years were slipping by. “What do I want from life, anyway?” I asked myself. “Well…I want to be happy.” But I had never thought about what made me happy or how I might be happier.
Last week, Gretchen Rubin’s book The Happiness Project hit two years on the New York Times bestseller list. If you haven’t yet read it: buy it, learn it, know it, and live it. It’s a marvelous book, and contains pearl after pearl on living well. Following the advice in this book really can improve your health and happiness. It’s a critical primer on how to make meaningful change in your life. Although it’s not all about workouts and diet plans, it’s a fundamental lesson on making changes and sticking to them. If you repeatedly make New Year’s resolutions to get healthier, and then don’t keep them, or if you just want to improve your good habits, then Rubin’s book is a wonderful guide.
One of the best features of The Happiness Project is that this book is eminently practical. This isn’t Eat, Pray, Love. Rubin changed her life within the parameters of her existing life. She didn’t change the surface things or uproot her family. She says that she didn’t want to turn her life down, she just wanted to change things without changing her life. She set out to find happiness in her very own kitchen.
This is not a book that will result in yet more dropped resolutions. There is a breed of readers that might be called “armchair self-improvers”. Like armchair travelers, these people (and I think we all have this tendency in some respect), spend time reading self-improvement books, but never actually go anywhere with them. The Happiness Project is so eminently do-able, so practical, and yet so inspiring, that it’s almost impossible not to make at least a few small changes after reading it.
This book doesn’t talk about changes that will cause major upheavals in your lifestyle. It’s about baby steps. Rubin herself notes how minor most of her resolutions were. She said that the center of her “happiness project,” was a list of resolutions, which became the changes that she wanted to make in her life. The author said that stepping back to think about her resolutions helped her to see how small they were. She was attracted to the idea of a fresh start and total committment to heading into the unknown. But for Rubin, her happiness didn’t depend on adventure. She wasn’t looking for big changes.
That’s the beauty of Rubin’s project. It’s not an escape read. Rubin was not depressed, or profoundly unhappy with her own life. She merely wanted to appreciate things more. She wanted to be less rushed, less stressed, less irritable–to shed many of the nagging little moments of petty dissatisfaction that rob everyday life of its joy.
Rubin took an intelligent approach to New Year’s Resolutions. She didn’t start in trying to do everything at once. She broke her goals down into 12 separate areas, and tackled one each month. By the time she reached the first of each month, she had practiced the previous plan until she was familiar and had made each step a habit.
And that is just how you can do your own project. Whether you’re making resolutions to get healthy, or to improve your own happiness, it’s focusing on the small steps that will improve your well-being. Doing a little bit every day will accomplish more than trying to force yourself to stick to huge changes that you make all at once. As Gretchen notes:
What you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while.
Happiness and health are so closely connected. Improving your happiness will reduce painful stress, and allow you to make time for important things like eating well and exercising, which will improve your health. Or as Rubin phrases it:
In a virtuous circle, research shows, being happy energizes you, and at the same time, having more energy makes it easier for you to engage in activities— like socializing and exercise— that boost happiness.
Most of the physical health tips are included right at the beginning. Rubin’s January resolutions were mainly about her energy levels. Her attitude differed from mos people’s approach. She did not tell herself that she needed to get in shape. Instead, she determined to boost her energy. She doesn’t call it fitness. She calls it vitality.
It’s encouraging that her basic resolutions are small and simple. Yet they make such a big difference. The first resolution wasn’t to go to the gym for an hour a day. It was simply to get more sleep.
For my physical energy: I needed to make sure that I got enough sleep and enough exercise. Although I’d already known that sleep and exercise were important to good health, I’d been surprised to learn that happiness— which can seem like a complex, lofty, and intangible goal— was quite influenced by these straightforward habits.
After a week or so of more sleep, I began to feel a real difference. I felt more energetic and cheerful with my children in the morning. I didn’t feel a painful, never-fulfilled urge to take a nap in the afternoon. Getting out of bed in the morning was no longer torture; it’s so much nicer to wake up naturally instead of being jerked out of sleep by a buzzing alarm.
She also made resolutions to exercise better. Again, she didn’t really exercise more. One new leap that she decided to take was paying a personal trainer for strength-training workouts. Although she exercised regularly, she had previously been unable to stick to a strength-training regimen. She hired a trainer on the advice of a friend. A big insight was that, although the price was high, the workouts were shorter. As her husband pointed out to her, they paid more to work out less. And that’s smart. Instead of longer workouts, she packed efficient and effective workouts into 20-minute sessions. She noticed the benefits of workouts. She points out that people that exercise think clearly, enjoy better sleep, are healthier overall and even delay the onset of dementia. Rubin sites how exercising regularly helps to boost energy in those that are sedentary.
She also started walking more, buying a pedometer to track how many steps she took in a day. She found that, not only was she getting more exercise, but walking helped her to feel better and work more efficiently.
Walking had an added benefit: it helped me to think…exercise-induced brain chemicals help people think clearly. In fact, just stepping outside clarifies thinking and boosts energy.
Many times, I’d guiltily leave my desk to take a break, and while I was walking around the block, I’d get some useful insight that had eluded me when I was being virtuously diligent.
Gretchen Rubin demonstrates repeatedly that you don’t have to make huge changes all at once in order to improve your health and your mood. Just start with a short, simple routine. Then practice being mindful of your energy levels. When you’re feeling low on energy, don’t give in to the temptation to plop down on the couch for a “rest” that lasts for hours and wastes a whole evening. Instead, go for a walk, and act more energetic. Instead of dragging yourself around, picture yourself briskly moving with pleasure and energy. Act that way. Then you’ll feel it.
In October, Gretchen began keeping a food diary. We’ve all probably heard this advice, and very few of us do it. Gretchen, too, had a hard time. But that was OK. Even though she had difficulties remembering to keep her journal, she found that even making the effort paid big benefits.
Just thinking about writing things down, even if the diary isn’t completely accurate, makes us more conscious of eating. You can’t mentally minimize our consumption of junk food if you have to think “this candy (handful of fries, couple of potato chips) will have to go in the diary”. That gets rid of the notion that we just let ourselves occasionally have a little “treat”, when it’s actually a daily habit.
I tried, but only rarely did I manage to remember to record everything I ate in a day. One problem with not being very mindful, it turns out, is that you have trouble keeping your mindfulness records. Nevertheless, even attempting to keep a food diary was a useful exercise. It made me more attuned to the odds and ends I put into my mouth: a piece of bread, the last few bites of Eleanor’s lasagna. Most important, it forced me to confront the true magnitude of my “fake food” habit. I’d pretended to myself that I indulged only occasionally, but in fact I ate a ton of fake food: pretzels, low-fat cookies or brownies, weird candy in bite-sized portions, and other not-very-healthy snacks.
…the food diary, incomplete as it was, made me aware of how much fake food I was eating.
You might find, as Rubin did, that the “everything in moderation” habit, or the occasional treat, does not work for you. She had to give up “fake food” altogether. If she tried to “treat” herself, she would overdo it. But she found, to her surprise, that the total denial was quite enjoyable. This doesn’t only apply to junk food. Gretchen asks people whether they are “abstainers” or “moderators”: whether giving things up altogether is easier than doing things in moderation. The point is not that one is better than the other. The point is that either is ok, as long as you choose the option that really works for you.
I gave up fake food cold turkey— and it felt good to give it up. I’d thought of these snacks as treats and hadn’t realized how much “feeling bad” they’d generated— feelings of guilt, self-neglect, and even embarrassment. Now those feelings were gone. Just as I’d seen in July, when I was thinking about money, keeping a resolution to “Give something up” can be surprisingly satisfying. Who would have thought that self-denial could be so agreeable?
Just as Rubin allowed her thoughts while sitting on a bus to be the seed of major life changes, her book has become the seed of a new movement. Thousands of people are following her example. Rubin’s popular website has her own notes and writings, and it also has resources to start your own happiness project, individually or in a group.
You don’t have to wait for the new year to make resolutions. And if you’ve left last January’s resolutions languishing, spring is a great time to get them out again and dust them off. Re-work your plan to take small steps weekly or monthly, adding new ones periodically. Follow along and use the materials and chart’s from Rubin’s website.
You’ll soon find yourself boosting your happiness, and your health.