What’s not to like about life when you’re reading 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 on the beach while your husband sits beside you keeping his eye on happy kids frolicking in the waves?
Not much, I tell you.
I finished The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin (my book club’s current selection) while at the beach and really enjoyed it. Rubin actually reminded me a lot of myself, especially when she candidly shared some of her weaknesses like being too critical and getting snappy at messes and the like. She is a self-proclaimed Type Aer. She had struggled with contentment despite living a happy life, so she sets out to develop her own happiness project, and over the course of one year she makes various monthly resolutions such as “lighten up” and “pay attention.” Each month includes concrete actions to help achieve these resolutions. For example, during her “lighten up” month, she resolves to sing in the morning and to “be a treasure house of happy memories.” She partly achieves the latter by creating file boxes for each of her daughters and filling them with myriad memorabilia like birthday invitations and class photos.
I really got a lot out of the book and even though it’s secular in nature, I felt like it made for good Lenten reading. In fact, something that really intrigued me is that while Rubin considers herself “a reverent agnostic,” she advocates that everyone finds a spiritual master to imitate. After much research and delving into various religions and religious leaders, Rubin chooses St. Thérèse of Lisieux as her own spiritual master. Reading St. Thérèse’s Story of a Soul profoundly impacts Rubin, as it did me when I read it several years ago. (I’d say it’s time to reread the book because it will certainly help me to feel less invisible and to recognize that all the little things I do each day are sanctifying.) Rubin talks about St. Thérèse’s “little way” and describes it as such: “Her ‘Little Way’ [was] holiness achieved in a little way by little souls rather than by great deeds performed by great souls” and then she directly quotes St. Thérèse:
“Love proves itself by deeds, so how am I to show my love? Great deeds are forbidden [for] me. The only way I can prove my love is by…every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love.”
Rubin also explains why St. Thérèse has such an appeal to her and her own happiness project. Rubin writes,
“I’d started my happiness project to test my hypothesis that I could become happier by making small changes in my ordinary day. I didn’t want to reject the natural order of my life – by moving to Walden Pond or Antarctica, say, or taking a sabbatical from my husband. I wasn’t going to give up toilet paper or shopping or experiment with hallucinogens. I’d already switched careers. Surely, I’d hoped, I could change my life without changing my life, by finding more happiness in my own kitchen.”
This is so simple yet resonates very much with me. I want to find happiness right here in my vocation, in my home, in this little life I’ve been blessed with and like St. Thérèse, great deeds aren’t likely to be in my mix. I can’t abandon my family, for instance, to become a missionary. My mission field is right here in my home, with my family.
I’ve been inspired to begin my own happiness project, and it’s been surprising to me how out of touch I’ve grown with what truly gives me great joy. The ocean surely does, but like Rubin, I have no plans to move to the coast. I told my husband after an early morning walk that getting up before the sun makes me happy. Since I am no longer running (and sadly, feeling more pain again and wondering if I’ll ever be a runner again), I’ve gotten out of the habit of waking up before everyone else. I miss that morning time stillness. I need to start waking up extra early again.
Watching dolphin play during my beach walk made me happy, too, but what can I do with that? Watch YouTube videos of dolphin surfing the waves?I have always enjoyed reading books about dolphin. Maybe I should research some new titles to add to my library.
The brisk walk itself made me happy as well. I truly enjoy physical activity. I relish in pushing myself and feeling the air circulate through my lungs. Feeling my heart pump in my chest makes me acutely aware that I am alive and well.
I always keep a travel journal on our trips where I recount the daily events. We were reading from past entries, and we all agreed that we were very thankful for this treasure trove of memories. Reading my past entries also made me aware of how much I miss writing. I do still write. I keep a Mom’s One Line a Day: A Five-Year Memory Book (keeping a one-line-a-day journal was recommended in The Happiness Project and is something I’ve been doing since January 1st of this year), write a health column and occasional blog posts, and draft speeches. But I don’t write nearly as much as I once did. And that novel is still in the embryonic stage. I said that when I cut back on blogging, I’d devote more time to my fiction, but it hasn’t really happened. Life is so full. There seems little time to do things for myself aside from exercise, something I do six days a week. But I’ve decided I am going to make writing more of a priority again.
I’m always feeling guilty about this sorely-neglected blog, but writing here, even if it is only sporadically, consumes a lot of my limited writing time so I have come up with a solution. I was perusing piles and piles of old writing clips. I have written hundreds – thousands I expect – of columns. I used to write a secular “Mommy Daze” column for a parenting magazine, and I’ve written essays for many other magazines. Some have been published on this blog in some form; others have not. But I thought why not re-publish some of my old work here, including some old blog posts? My readership has changed over the years, and the loyal friends who have stuck with me will put up with the repeats. So I’m going to comb my archives for content, and then I’m going to really work on that fiction. I am just going to write and not worry about my inner critic.
I am also going to cut out things that make me feel badly. Rubin writes about this as well – that sometimes it’s not what we’re not doing that leaves us feeling less than rosy but what we are doing. She, for example, decides to give up fake food because every time she would eat something processed and artificial, she’d feel pangs of guilt. But she kept doing it. When she finally stopped eating fake food, she felt much better. I often advocate not categorizing food as “bad” or “good.” It’s just food, but some of it is surely better fuel for your body. I have found myself snacking more lately, and that mindless eating doesn’t make me feel good. But mindfully eating real, delicious, and good food does. I’d rather have a chunk of real dark chocolate than randomly snack on some cheese-flavored crackers.
Another point Rubin repeatedly hammered in throughout the book really struck a chord with me. One of her Twelve Personal Commandments is to Be Gretchen. This means remembering that:
“’You can choose what you do, but you can’t choose what you like to do.’ I have a lot of notions about what I wish I liked to do, of the subjects and occupations that I wish interested me. But it doesn’t matter what I wish I were like. I am Gretchen.”
This really hit home with me. In the book, Rubin uses the example that she thought she didn’t like music but during happiness project, she realized that listening to tunes did, in fact, lift her mood. However, the type of music she liked had embarrassed her in the past since she enjoyed what some would see as banal Pop 40 Hits. She had wished she liked more sophisticated music like classical medleys, esoteric rock, or jazz. I, too, have often wished I liked something that others seem to derive so much pleasure and enjoyment from or that my tastes were more refined. Why do shoes make me happy? That seems so superficial. But the fact that I’ve spent a good chunk of my life pregnant helps explain my affinity for shoes. My feet stay the same size even when the rest of me doesn’t, and you don’t have to strip down in front of a highly-fluorescent mirror to try on a pair of shoes.
In the past, I’ve also tried to really like sewing, elaborate crafting, and regularly playing complicated strategy board games (my husband loves these – the games, not the crafts and sewing). I felt like a lousy homemaker because I didn’t have any desire to learn to sew and wasn’t too good at it. I felt like a sub par mom because Pinterest boards made me feel like doo-doo and the thought of making something like this with my kids just seemed like a very messy endeavor that would likely result in me getting a bit snappy over the paint-covered hands. “Don’t touch anything!” I could hear myself shouting over and over. So much for happy memories, right? I prefer to arm my kids with some paints and an old sheet and tell them to go all Jackson Pollock on it out in the backyard. Then I will gladly hose off the rainbow children.
As for games, I do enjoy some of them and I don’t mind playing them once my husband has figured them out and read the novel-like list of rules, but I once felt like I was intellectually inferior because I didn’t get all fired up with the thought of strategizing against my opponent. Now I (occasionally) play for fun, but I’m okay with sitting nearby and reading a book while my oldest daughter and husband play together instead.
I just need to be okay with being me and pursuing my own interests, passions, and sources of happiness. Reading lots of storybooks aloud gives me more joy than doing a messy craft with the kids, and that’s just fine. Simple Family Draw Time makes me happy. (It makes the kids very happy, too.) I do love to create things – babies, milk for babies, simple scarves, healthy meals, new muscle definition in my arms, stories, dreams, homemade birthday treats for my kids like ballerina cupcakes and pirate treasure chest cakes, and scones. But what I like to create is different from what others want to create, and I need to learn to accept that.
It’s surprised me that one of the biggest challenges to launching my own happiness project is simply know what does make me happy. I’ve got lots of pondering to do.
What I do know is that spending a few days at the beach, after my wonderful husband decided to surprise us all with a spontaneous trip, most definitely makes happiness easier. It wasn’t the most penitential way to spend the first full week of Lent but as a friend reminded me after I sent her a photo of all four kids joyfully licking ice cream cones, God is surely smiling down on their happiness. I know I was smiling.
Here are a few photos from our trip:
This is Winter swimming with her pal Hope.
This is Nicholas. He was found on Christmas Eve along with his mother after they had beached themselves. They both suffered from third-degree sunburns. Nicholas’s mom unfortunately did not survive the trauma, but he has been at the aquarium now for several years. We were lucky enough to witness his training session, and it turns out that Nicholas is a mischevious fellow who is known for dousing people with water.
Madeline and Rachel were some of Nicholas’s victims. The unexpected shower did not seem to bother them too much.
Thomas, hanging out in the aquarium’s learning room.
Back at the beach. I love it when my kids run to me like there’s no place they’d rather be than in my arms.