In just a week I discovered a few home truths about happiness
Gretchen Rubin's 'Happiness Project' sold millions. Heidi Scrimgeour tries out her latest offering
Every week I vow to allow myself a relaxing, indulgent Saturday morning at home. But as the days whizz by chores mount up, and when Saturday arrives I am invariably sulking about the state of the house and tackling towers of washing-up instead of being engrossed in a page-turner, and on my second cup of Java.
So perhaps it's unsurprising that my eye was drawn to a new book called Happier At Home by Gretchen Rubin, author of the bestselling The Happiness Project (www.happiness-project.com).
Published in 2010, The Happiness Project documents the year Rubin spent scrutinising prevailing wisdom about how to be happy, and applying it to her own life. The book quickly hit the top of the New York Times bestseller list and has been translated into 35 languages. Rubin also writes a blog where she shares daily pearls of wisdom on the theme of happiness.
Happiness Project groups have sprung up around the world, and the Girl Scouts of America recently introduced a Science of Happiness Badge, requiring scout cadettes to complete happiness projects.
Rubin's latest book, Happier at Home, is an account of the strategies she used to narrow the locus of her search. The book's title was inspired by a line from Samuel Johnson: "To be happy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition." Of all the elements that influence our happiness, Rubin believes home is the most important.
She explains: "Although the people in it are its most important element, home is also a place of return, the physical hub of my schedule -- and of my imagination. In my mind, the entire globe revolves around a single spot, where a bright red 'You Are Here' arrow hovers undetected above our roof.
"When Jamie and I moved from our old apartment just 10 blocks south to where we live now, I remember how all of New York City seemed to wobble and re-orient itself, just slightly, to put us back at the very centre. Behind our unremarkable front door waits the little world of our own making, a place of safety, exploration, comfort, and love."
Could taking a leaf out of Rubin's book make me happier at home, too? I resolved to find out. But unlike Rubin's nine-month-long mission, I would give myself just one week to systematically address my own haphazard home life in order to maximise my happiness, applying tips outlined in Rubin's book.
Rubin writes about the importance of giving precious possessions prominence around her home, and calls this ''cultivating a shrine''. She explains: "A shrine is arranged with care. It entices people to particular activities and moods. It's a sign of dedication."
I wonder if the trail of destruction which my sons seem to leave in their wake could be seen as a shrine of sorts? Maybe the piles of Lego precariously perched on every available surface aren't mess, but shrines that show off the attention to detail that goes into their play.
In the playroom I am greeted by the sight of at least 20 piles of assorted Lego bricks. I resist the urge to start yelling, and try to see it from their point of view. I suddenly understand why my efforts to tidy are seen as indiscriminate destruction of their best work.
Seeing the 'mess' as a shrine built by my sons makes me engage with their possessions and passions differently, exactly as Rubin predicts.
I stop feeling enraged by what seems like carelessness with their possessions and disrespect for their environment and the time I spend tidying up after them; instead I'm touched by their creative expression and the imagination with which they've constructed an entire playscape throughout our home.
I read about Rubin's threshold rituals -- repeating a mantra every time you cross the threshold of your home -- which she adopts on the basis that gratitude cultivates a happier life. I decide to adopt some of my own, and say, 'There's no place like home' every time I put my key in the front door.
I feel silly at first but soon find myself smiling as I say the words, and feeling somehow more positively attached to our home and to what awaits behind the door. I also start saying, 'It's going to be a great day' every time we set off on the school run. To my surprise, I find myself feeling much more positive and upbeat about the day ahead.
Rubin quotes Elias Canetti: "One lives in the naïve notion that later there will be more room than in the entire past." Inspired by this, and by Rubin's assertion that we need to celebrate the present moment in order to feel happier, I resolve to be more spontaneous. When my children beg me to play with them on the trampoline, I say a wholehearted 'yes'. Their delight lifts my spirits and make me want to inspire that reaction more often.
I receive sad news from a friend via email and can't find the right words to reply, but I suddenly think of an unusual proposal in Rubin's guidebook for happiness: ''Have an uncomfortable conversation.''
I fear saying the wrong thing but I write a heartfelt, honest reply. It's impossible to be happy in the face of a loved one's sorrow, but as soon as I press 'send' I feel much less helpless, and more optimistic about my capacity to support my friend.
I resolve to adopt Rubin's policy of giving warm greetings and fond farewells to my family, as I realise I've formed a lazy habit of not doing this. Acknowledging their importance to me in this way increases our sense of connection; they respond favourably and our collective wellbeing seems boosted.
Rubin describes unfinished projects as an uncomfortable presence. I have a habit of ordering books from the library and piling them up beside my bed where they go unread. Every time I see them I feel a sense of disappointment and overwhelming pressure but I circumvent it by returning them all unread. I feel unencumbered instead of guilty.
I still plan to read them some day, but they're now something to look forward to instead of an uncomfortable presence in my home.
I resolve to 'give gold stars' -- or acknowledge more frequently the things I love about my family. They're suspicious at first, but I can tell they like it, and I note that I feel happy each time I express my thankfulness.
Rubin writes: "It isn't enough to love; we must prove it." Making more effort to prove my love for those around me served to make that love grow bigger.
If you could write a recipe for happiness, I'm convinced expansive love would be a vital ingredient.