Viktor Frankl wrote compelling prose about the humanistic and optimistic attitudes that spelled the difference between survival and destruction in Nazi death camps. He was a trained psychiatrist and neurologist and he lived through a traumatic, brutal and nearly unimaginable historic event. His insights, like his experience, are profound and worth pondering. I have honestly believed for several years that we are on the cusp of an evolutionary shift that has already obliterated life as we knew it and made some things about how the late twentieth and nascent twenty-first centuries operate starkly undeniable. We are cast into a sere landscape with no maps. I’ll read anything that seems like a good idea to pick up threads of direction about how to live now. But most of the current crop of “do this, don’t do that” books are insubstantial and, frankly, dated.
It isn’t entirely fair to take something slight and demand profundity from it and I won’t do that with Gretchen Rubin’s chronicle of her year-long quest, The Happiness Project. Rubin makes no claims that her book will inspire a Rilkean moment in a reader. She says she was happier at the end of her year but she admits to being essentially the same person she was when she began the project, only nicer. That’s good but pop science and psychology are written to appeal to a wide audience and Rubin’s book is more banal than epiphanic or brilliant. I was counting on a read closer to the brilliant end of the spectrum. (Brilliant truth from the Heart Sutra: no expectations. Haven’t mastered that yet.) I am so not a fan of writing that constantly refers to “research” showing something without citing the research. How do I know? What research? Maybe the research was flawed or biased. Why should I take your word for it? So I remain curmudgeonly but unconvinced.
The Happiness Project was an attempt by a Yale-educated lawyer, former Supreme Court clerk and published author, married to a successful spouse, also a Yale law grad (I think), living on the Upper East Side with two small healthy children and apparent financial security as well as a close and congenial family, to make her life better. Her goals were to blunt an inconvenient short temper, lose a snarky, snappish demeanor and appreciate the many blessings she acknowledges are the substance of her life. Those are admirable goals. She created a bunch of resolutions and a blog, probably had a heart-to-heart with her literary agent, and set out to remake the tenor of her days.
It’s a well-done self help book. There are elements you can try to create your own happiness project and a month-by-month report on what she tried and how she did. I admit she started to lose me when she purchased a very pricey personal trainer-led weights program at her local gym as part of an effort to be healthier. And there is the writing studio on the roof top of her apartment building, child-free. Probably a nanny. Time to start several groups that meet for supper and conversation about books and personal projects and whatever. This is a happiness project for people in the 1% who are crazy-busy and stressed about it but still manage to have a significant amount of time on their hands and the resources to bankroll a personal quest.
The sages cited in the book–and Rubin reads all the change artists, from Frankl to St. Theresa to the Dalai Lama to Anne Lamott and Thoreau–have words of wisdom, and the bibliography is a useful reading guide for your own course of study. The suggestions that worked for Rubin would make a power-packed magazine article but I started checking where I was in the year at about May or June.
Once upon a time I might have aspired to the protected middle-class cocoon of Rubin’s life but in the abrupt evolutionary now I could not relate. You might, though. Schedule a Pollyanna Week, make a Resolutions Chart and get a pedometer. Do not follow her advice about healthy eating–it is woefully unevolved. Do try the get-enough-sleep tip. I keep meaning to do that. And clean out your closet. You’ll feel better. You’ll find the few things that still fit you. If you live in Manhattan, they will all be black so that everything matches. That is the magic key to simplifying your life. Move to Manhattan. Be rich, if you can. Buy only black clothes. Take lots of pictures of your kids. And stop gossiping. There. Don’t you feel happier already? Thought you would.