Thoughts and books for your own ‘Happiness Project’
In her online article “World Happiness Report reveals the US has gotten happier in 2022,” Ann Schmidt relates that the United States moved from number 19 out of 146 nations to number 16 in its happiness index.
On the other hand, in “Americans are less happy than ever. What are we doing wrong?” Mary Elizabeth Williams informs us that many Americans report being unhappy with their lives. She cites one study reporting that “The intense motivation to pursue happiness has been very robustly linked to worse well-being in the U.S.”
So much for polls.
Whatever the case, we Americans have long chased after happiness. After all, written into the Declaration of Independence as among our “certain inalienable rights” are “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
And we all have our own ideas on what happiness looks like. As we head into 2023, some of us have doubtless made New Year’s resolutions designed to enhance our happiness. Losing weight, heading off to the gym, or spending less money are some of the most popular of these vows. If I can just drop 30 pounds, George tells himself, I’ll be a happy guy. And maybe he will.
But suppose we just want to tweak our happiness index, to smile more, feel a bit lighter in spirit, or wake in the morning bestowing a blessing on the new day rather than a curse. We’re not looking for cloud nine, or even cloud seven; we’re just looking for a modicum of everyday satisfaction and joy.
Here are a few books that might give us such a boost.
In “The Happiness Project” (Harper Paperback, Anniversary Edition 2018, 368 pages), Gretchen Rubin recounts a conversation with her husband Jamie. He asks, “So, if you’re pretty happy, why do a happiness project?” She answers, “I am happy — but I’m not as happy as I should be. I have such a good life, I want to appreciate it more — and live up to it better.”
And so, Rubin sets out on her year-long happiness project, which she lays out in detail in this book. Along the way, she gives readers scores of suggestions that might contribute to their own well-being and contentment, as her chapter titles alone tell us: “Make time for friends,” “Boost energy,” and “Keep a contented heart.”
The tone of this book, and the suggestions it offers, can also be found in its subtitle: “Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun.”
The Happiness Project became a best-seller — surely that added to Rubin’s happiness! — and she wrote several follow-up books, including “Outer Order, Inner Calm: Declutter & Organize to Make More Room for Happiness” (Harmony, 2019, 240 pages). Decluttering has become a movement of sorts in America, with dozens of books and websites offering advice on how to get rid of the junk in our closets and the detritus in our minds. Many of Rubin’s suggestions can be found elsewhere, but she does offer some excellent advice on replacing our “stuff” with beautiful objects, and in the final short chapter links the consequent orderliness with the calm we’ll feel.
One offshoot of this movement to unload our junk is the introduction of hygge to Americans. This term from Denmark has no direct translation into English, but as Stephanie Pederson tells us in “American Cozy: Hygge-Inspired Ways to Create Comfort & Happiness” (Union Square & Co., 2018, 224 pages), hygge (pronounced “who-gah) implies contentment, quiet joy, and “taking pleasure from the things around you.”
As in Rubin’s books, many of Pederson’s ideas are shared by other authors and experts, though Pederson adds a Danish twist. At one point, for instance, she writes about the importance of erecting boundaries around parts of our day, especially between work and our private lives. For many of us, those boundaries are either blurred or non-existent, and Pederson demonstrates how, by compartmentalizing the two, we can actually get more work done while at the same time more fully enjoying our time away from the desk or the workplace.
One added attraction that makes this little book special are the simple but sweet illustrations and the layout. These in themselves create hygge, a feeling of warmth and comfort.
In “A Simple Act of Gratitude: How Learning to Say Thank You Changed My Life” (Hatchette Books, 2011, 240 pages), attorney John Kralik describes how he lifted himself from a “tour de force of failure” and despair by writing one thank you note every day for a year. These notes changed the direction of his life. I haven’t yet read Kralik’s book, but hope to do so in the coming year, for it reveals what is surely one of the foundation stones of happiness: gratitude for others and for the good things and people in our lives.
At the very end of his life, in an essay “My 2019,” English philosopher and author of more than 50 books Roger Scruton recollects his battle with cancer and the savagery with which critics assailed his reputation in the last year of his life. He died in January 2020. Here are his thoughts written just weeks before his death.
“During this year much was taken from me — my reputation, my standing as a public intellectual, my position in the Conservative movement, my health. But much was given back: by Douglas Murray’s generous defence, by the friends who rallied behind him, by the rheumatologist who saved my life and by the doctor to whose care I am now entrusted. Falling to the bottom in my own country, I have been raised to the top elsewhere, and looking back over the sequence of events I can only be glad that I have lived long enough to see this happen.
Coming close to death you begin to know what life means, and what it means is gratitude.”
So, if you’re looking for increased happiness, read some books and practice some of the ideas that appeal to you.
But start with gratitude, and you’re well on your way to happiness.