In January of 2010, I started working through Gretchen Rubin’s 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. Rubin studied happiness theory and spent a year testing happiness theories. She was happy but felt she could be happier. I was not happy. I had spent fifteen years of my life being treated for chronic depression and another ten escalating to generalized anxiety disorder. I had absolutely no idea how to be happy in the sense of it being a state of existence. Circumstances could make me happy, but an underlying darkness inevitably blotted out the light.
I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life chasing happiness. Hopefully, it would be like lifting weights or swinging a racquet–once I got the feeling for it, I could recreate the motion until it was a memory, automatic.
Rubin separated The Happiness Project into twelve themed chapters, one for each month, offered the structure of a resolutions chart, personal commandments, secrets of adulthood and set up a blog and a website with a happiness toolbox.With all of her footwork, there was really no excuse for me not to try. So I resolved to spend a year learning how to be happy. After that, maybe I could work on getting happier.
Three weeks into the project my husband said he wanted a divorce. Our son was just over three. The project turned into a life vest with me determined not to drown. My year of learning how to be happy turned instead to a year of self-care, recovery, and figuring out what to do next.
I took a divorce recovery workshop, went to support group meetings at least six times a week, was asked to come back to the divorce workshop as a facilitator so went through WYRE a second time, went to acupuncture, and met with a group of women working through Renee Trudeau’s The Mother’s Guide to Self-Renewal: How to Reclaim, Rejuvenate and Re-Balance Your Life. I spent hundreds of hours in therapeutic settings. And I was actually happier than I’d ever been, but I still didn’t feel like I could honestly call myself a happy person. I wanted happiness as a state of being. I wanted to see the world as a glass (at least) half full.
So 2011 turned into my second pass at the happiness project. When our group finished The Mother’s Guide to Self-Renewal, we switched to The Happiness Project. My divorce was finalized. I’d kept my house. I hadn’t had a nervous breakdown. I was ready to learn how to be happy.
Having a group of people to work through the book with was a great help. Every month, we talked about whether or not the resolutions chart was working for us, if we were actually getting happier, what each of our continuing obstacles to happiness were.
We all worked through the project differently–meaning that what worked for one of us didn’t necessarily work for all of us. That’s been a helpful lesson in itself.
For me, having a resolutions chart that need to I look at daily, that has specific actions for me to take, and that I have to check off is helpful. I feel productive. I can see where I’m making progress. I can also see which of the resolutions I consistently don’t do and can ask myself why not. Maybe I’m resolving to do something because I think I should but should rarely leads me to happiness.
For me, simple things made a difference in how I was feeling. Was I getting enough sleep, meditating or taking time for prayer, drinking water, eating well? Was I writing, getting exercise? All those resolutions people make on New Year’s are the foundation for my happiness.
Lattes don’t replace sleep. The escape I get from entering someone else’s world through TV or books only lasts till I hit the off button or close the cover. Being a single parent to a now five-year old, I can’t be the kind of parent I want. If I’m not doing something to stay in balance, he suffers. I don’t have energy to play, patience when he flip-a-dips around the bed after stories. I’m not a fake it till you make it kind of person. I needed to figure out how to actually make it.
By our official end of the project I’d had the same daily resolutions on my chart for about four months. My challenges continued to be my challenges.
- Exercise 3xs/week
- Go upstairs by 11, lights off by midnight
- No yelling
- Replace criticism with kindness
Did I check every one off every day? Not even close. That’s why they stay on there. I need to see. I need to remember. When I do these things, I feel better. Even though the project is over, I’m still using the chart. I see myself continuing to do so.
Besides the daily resolutions, I focus on one area of my life each month to get big projects done. When I wasn’t getting to the gym, had stayed up till two, or hadn’t remembered to take even a minute to get quiet, I needed a bigger picture, somewhere I could measure progress: curtains on the windows, a redesign of the blog, a business plan for how to support myself and my son.
Though our group finished working through the book together, we’re going to continue progressing toward happiness. This month we’re using Byron Katie’s “The Work.” Next month we’ll discuss part of Pema Chodron’s Don’t Bite the Hook. I can honestly say I’m happy. What we’re doing now will help me learn how to be happier.
I’d love to hear any tools you’ve got–books, support groups, spiritual practice, vitamins, whatever–that help you to be happy. And if you’re trying to figure out how, I’d definitely recommend The Happiness Project.
Photo by Danielle Kiemel