The Happiness Project has topped the New York Times best seller list. Apparently I was not alone thinking that maybe there was some road map for me in there about my own positivity quest. From the beginning though, there was something a little too organized and rational about her project for me. Turns out, author Gretchen Rubin was born into success and money. She came to her project by way of Yale law school, where she was no slouch, and landed a highly competitive and connected position as legal clerk to Justice O’Conner. She is clearly a quick study and versed in organizing massive amounts of information. She did her background work on happiness in the Yale library.
She lives in neo-Georgian splendor with a housekeeper and nanny, and married to a hedge fund manager who is the son of recent treasury secretary Robert Rubin. All of these facts were too inconsequential to surface in her book. The follow up to her last book, “Power Money Fame Sex: A User’s Guide.” She said her values have become more “transcendent.” She obviously had plenty of time on her hands to tackle the happiness project.
Her folksy tone throughout the book and the cover art would lead you to believe she is like the rest of us; struggling to find happiness in the midst of the messiness of life. Although most of us wouldn’t balk at her intentions (although her upper class friends did) of wanting to lift herself our of her upper class malaise and low grade discontent with life. The omissions of her lifestyle and opportunities offend me a little. We all know that money doesn’t bring you happiness, as is evidenced by the many unhappy rich people running around, and yet it certainly gave her the time and space to organize her life around finding her own happiness.
Her project is organized around themes, which define a satisfying life. By her own admission she says, there is nothing original in the book, although she did have some original ideas. The monthly chapter themes are each organizes again around a specific set of attributes in which she charts her daily progress. A method she adapted from Ben Franklin. Rigorous is one word that comes to mind. This is a woman who takes pleasure in cleaning out closets. The method is literally an organizational plan for happiness.
As any of you who have been following this quest could probably tell, this is not a method that would work for me. For despite my Master’s degree in organizational development, organization is not a primary skill set of mine (my closets bear witness to this). More fundamentally, even though we are both ostensibly working towards the same goal of a more satisfying life, the idea that you can neatly organize your life to be happy is not what this positivity quest has been teaching me.
The biggest takeaway in the 62 days of this experiment in changing my mind is that beyond the tools that I have tested and used to support my quest, it is not the changing of the wristband or the journaling of gratitude where the change happens most deeply; it is the days when I have the courage to go through the dark places, to hear my own negativity, to be present to what is happening in my heart, to bear witness to the deeply embedded grooves in my consciousness where the positivity quest comes real.
Several weeks ago, while reviewing Brightsided by Barbara Ehrenreich, I understood for the first time that the quest was not about the layering of positive statements over difficult emotions. Even forcing new mental habits on top of unresolved issues will not only fail but maybe put you in a worse place than you started from. This is what the happiness project reminds me of, that much as we long for a way out of our unhappiness and struggles, the only real way to something else is through. Choosing a positive relationship to a difficult situation might not actually feel like a happiness project, but it has all the makings of a new mind.