My Happiness Project

My Happiness Project February 6, 2013

When I first started read Gretchen Rubin’s best-selling book, The Happiness Project, I thought, “Wow, she does a great job of summarizing tons on research on positive psychology in a way that is accessible and engaging. But, I mean, her life is so bourgeois! She has a happy marriage already, two lovely kids, and she lives comfortably in NYC. How applicable is her happiness project to my life or my students’ lives?”

Since I’m teaching some texts from positive psychology this semester, I asked my students to read Rubin’s book and to follow her lead and do their own happiness project. To set a good example, I started my own happiness project.  My dubiousness about Rubin faded as I realized two things. First, my own life often sounds (or is) just as bourgeois as Rubin’s. Second, her explanation of research in positive psychology and her practical tips for being happier helped me personally more than I if I had just read her book but not practiced anything new.

For starters, since I’ve had a lot of ups and downs in the last few months, I kept a gratitude journal that focused on relationships—such as meaningful conversations, kind gestures, and warm feelings towards family. I enthusiastically wrote in my journal every night for a week about my friend Laura’s hospitality, my student Samantha’s cheerfulness, and all the people who make my work engaging.

Keeping a gratitude journal about the special people in my life definitely lifted my mood—the downs were still there, but the ups were more frequent. To borrow Barbara Frederickson’s terminology, my gratitude journal increased my attention and appreciation for the positive in my life and hence increased my positivity ratio—the ratio of positive emotions to negative emotions I felt. I didn’t find, however, that my negative emotions went away, but I was more equipped to deal with negative emotions because I had more positive emotions.

Further into Rubin’s book, I was inspired by her heartfelt rendition of the lessons she learned from Saint Therese of Lisieux’s autobiography Story of a Soul. Although Saint Therese is one of the most celebrated Catholic saints of recent times, and tons of Catholic writers have extolled her virtuous little way, the big-minded, bourgeois over-achiever in me just didn’t think I was called to holiness through little things. Clearly, as a college professor, I’m called to great things, right? (Oh my God, how bourgeois and self-important I sound when I’m honest about my thoughts!)

Rubin, who is not Catholic and not even particularly spiritual, not only read Saint Therese’s Story of a Soul and loved it, she read 17 biographies of Saint Therese. (If you think I’m exaggerating, she says it on p. 210 of The Happiness Project). Why was Rubin so obsessed with St. Therese? 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 Antartica, say, or taking a sabbatical from my husband. I wasn’t going 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 [emphasis mine]. Everyone’s happiness project is different. Some people might feel the urge to make a radical transformation. I was vicariously exhilarated by these dramatic adventures, but I knew they weren’t the path to happiness for me. I wanted to take little steps to be happier as I lived my ordinary life, and that was very much in the spirit of St. Therese.” (pp. 210-211, The Happiness Project).

Reading Rubin’s words inspired me to the next phase of my gratitude journal: to give thanks for the little things in my life, such as the happiness I find in my kitchen, my living room, or my seemingly unimportant daily activities. The next day, I followed my regular routine: morning prayer, work, lunchtime gym break, shower & change, and back to work, all the while trying to be thankful for little things.

As I settled in for my twice-weekly routine of hairdrying and hairstyling my long, dark, thick and often unruly hair, I realized how anxious and unhappy I normally feel as I assemble all the tools I need to beat my hair into submission and look nice. I lined up my super-duper powerful Italian hairdryer, my boar’s head brush, my Bumble & Bumble heat protection spray, and then pointed a giant fan at me to deflect the heat from the hair dryer from overheating my whole body. “Uggh, this is so time consuming and hard!” I thought (as usual).

“God gave me beautiful hair”

About halfway through the hair-drying ritual, as my hair turned straight and fluffy and started to take shape, I thought, “God gave me beautiful hair. Be thankful for that Margarita!” So for the rest of those 30 minutes under the heat, I just repeated, “God gave me beautiful hair. God gave me beautiful hair.” Funny enough, when I went to my favorite coffee shop a few hours later, someone told me what great hair I have. When I went to Best Buy that night, someone else told me, “You have awesome hair.” My whole life, other people, and especially hairdressers, have told me I have awesome hair because it is thick, voluminous, and will do almost anything you want it to if you have the right tools and enough time. But I had never told myself, “I have great hair,” and given thanks for it.

Here are some other “little” things I gave thanks for this week: the sound of wind and birds in the morning; the smell of coffee; my pink shiny nail polish; my awesome gym and energetic workouts; sitting around a campfire and roasting smores; singing joyfully at Mass; singing the National Anthem at a UNC basketball game (and being especially thankful when I sang “the land of the free”); dancing wildly in the stands at the UNC basketball game to songs like “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Jump, Jump” and “Sweat.”

Okay, so my happiness project does sound rather bourgeois. But my gratitude journal for the “little things” did what Rubin said it would do (according to positive psychology studies): by increasing my awareness of and attention to little things, I enhanced my enjoyment of little things. Rubin and Saint Therese are right: we don’t have to leave our kitchens to find greater happiness. In fact, for most of us, happiness lies precisely in this little trick: really, deeply appreciating the little moments of every day.

Thanks to St. Therese, Rubin, and positive psychology for showing me this insight. Rubin and I do not have the virtuous life of St. Therese, but we can all be happier in the lives we are called to. And if we are happy, then we can spread happiness, and perhaps even become virtuous. Although happiness and virtuousness are not synonymous, virtuousness that is unhappy won’t attract any followers. Just look at Saint Therese, whose virtuous life was undoubtedly a joyful life.

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  • There is a deep connection between happiness and virtue – at least, in the classical way of thinking. Virtue is practically defined as the habit of happiness.

    Of course, happiness here means the fulfillment of one’s nature, not just a high frequency of positive emotions or moods. I think one of the problems with some psychological approaches is that they take emotion and mood as attributes to be changed, rather than symptoms (or signs, or by-products) of a deeper activity.

    • Yes, I think you are correct about the connection between happiness and virtue. And you are right that happiness or fulfillment is about much more than moods.

    • rumitoid

      Great observations. Thank you. It is my experience, which I may like to be a standard for all on earth but realize it is quite limited, that the pursuit of happiness is either satisfied by delusion or perpetual struggle.

      The most desperate are ultimately bourgeoise to the core. It is not a way out they seek but mere relief: a cigarette, hat, or cup of coffee.

      My gratitude would be unending if I had the author’s upper-class problems. (I am Bald.)

      I believe in Negative Psychology. Gratitude, if it is real, comes from being freed of old wounds. It is an ugly, painful and trying process. Height and breadth may be easily managed and appear to grant happiness, but depth gives joy, a totally different species.

      • Those are very profound observations that are worth thinking about.

        I do have a student who told me that it was only by taking her negative emotions seriously that she was able to expand her ability to feel positive emotions. The book I suggested she read is Feeling and Healing the Emotions by Conraad Baars:

  • Now you have me wondering what non-bourgeois happiness would be like.

    • Good question Beau! My class also read Chris Smith’s manuscript on flourishing, in which he says people need to have basic goods met (food, education, shelter, health) before they can have more complex goods. So, how would Rubin’s Happiness Project apply to a person recovering from cancer? From someone just released from jail? Just food for thought.

      Thanks for suggesting the book to me–it was a big hit!

  • Keeping a happiness diary would be a good Lenten project, I think. I wrote about you on my blog.

  • Me

    I think one has to look at the fundamentals…You point out the lady who is married, kids, NYC. The reality is that most human beings would want, health, wealth, and relationships to enjoy health and wealth with. So Shakespeare said Whats gone and whats past help should be past grief. So if you have terminal cancer, start accepting it, if they find a cure while you are chemoing..fine…else be happy for the remaining days and thats where the happiness journal can come in…the issue really is with wealth and relationships…because if you lose your hands and you were a painter, fine its gone…but with jobs and relationships, you keep agonizing, if only I train more, if only I call her once more, and so its easy to perceive that its still not past help. That starts grief. The happiness journal would be handy if you know that the source of your grief is one of these things. Then you can deal with the broken relationship with a happiness journal….