Sunday, 18 January 2015

The Happiness Project

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

I discovered this book when investigating habits.  Rubin, whose current book is due out in March and is on habits, has a really good blog.  She seems to have a particular knack for categorising things into types and she is also very good at debunking the one size fits all idea.  To discover happiness or to change your habits you must first understand your basic nature and then behave in ways which work with that nature rather than going against it.  She also does her research for her books 'live' as it were, and you can follow her progress on her blog.  

So, I'd meaning to read this book for a while and I'm glad I finally did.  This is a very personal and honest book - by the end of it you feel as though you know Gretchen and her family, husband Jamie and daughters Eliza and Eleanor, very well.  Gretchen is also very aware of her own self, her strengths, weaknesses, positive and negative attributes and her attempts to become happier within the confines of those are fascinating.

This book is a diary of her year of deliberately working on her sense of happiness by following all the traditional and modern psychological advice around on the subject.  She picked 3 or 4 'resolutions' to work on for each month and kept a resolutions chart to log how well she did with each one on a daily basis. In December she attempted to do all of them.  Did it work?  Well, there was no objective baseline test to measure how happy she was at the start of the year compared to how happy she was at the end but she certainly felt that she was happier - and surely if you think your are happy then you are?  

Whilst some of her resolutions worked and others didn't, the biggest factor in the whole experiment was, in fact, her use of the resolution chart to monitor what she was doing daily.  This acted as a constant reminder every time she felt herself slipping back into her old habits.  This is one of the biggest factors I have found when trying to change anything, for instance when I changed my diet and went Primal, logging my food in is the best way to keep myself on track. You cannot change what you don't measure.   She also makes a very important point in December about the difference between goals and resolutions.  Goals are something you strive towards and can either achieve or fail, they have an end point and when you reach that point you can stop.   Resolutions, on the hand, are actions you resolve to take regularly - daily, weekly, etc.  They are ongoing and permanent. So, if you want to be healthy a goal of running a marathon or losing a stone might be motivating but in itself it doesn't lead to permanent change.  You might go on an aggressive, expensive shakes-only diet and lose the stone, but if you immediately go back to eating how you did before then you might as well have not bothered.  If you train regularly for a marathon, go out and run it and then put your trainers in the bin as soon as that medal is around your neck then you have not changed anything.  But setting a resolution to not eat wheat and sugar or to walk for an hour every day will have a long term effect on your health, will become a habit, will become a part of who you are.  There will be days when you can't keep that resolution - sometimes you have to eat a slice of birthday cake, somedays you just can't fit the walk in, but that is not the end of the resolution and you can pick it straight back up the next day without too much detriment to your health.

So Rubin had some interesting resolutions over the course of the year but there were a few other techniques she used which I really liked. As she developed the resolutions she was going to try each month she actually developed some overarching principles which would underpin all the resolutions and provide a default standpoint when in doubt.  I really liked this idea and I think I might work on my own.  

Hers provide a good starting point and they are:

  1. Be Gretchen
  2. Let it go
  3. Act the way I want to feel
  4. Do it now
  5. Be polite and be fair
  6. Enjoy the process
  7. Spend out
  8. Identify the problem
  9. Lighten up
  10. Do what ought to be done
  11. No calculation
  12. There is only love
She also came up with a list of the Secrets of Adulthood - the lessons she felt she had learned with some difficulty as she had grown-up.  These are the things that are obvious really but you repeatedly bang your head against and have to remind yourself - obviously everyone's are different but a few resonated with me:

  • People don't notice your mistakes as much as you think
  • It's okay to ask for help
  • Do good, feel good
  • Bring a sweater
  • By doing a little every day you can get a lot done
  • What you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while
  • If you are not failing you are not trying hard enough
  • It's important to be nice to everyone
  • If you can't find something, clean up
  • You don't have to be good at everything
  • Most decisions don't require extensive research
  • You can choose what you do; you can't choose what you like to do
  • Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good
  • What is fun for other people may not be fun for you - and vice versa

With these guiding principles in place and a resolution chart the actual activities she undertook were interesting and some were useful ideas that are worth giving ago.  What I took from the book more than specific activities though, was that a deliberate choice to be mindful of things like 'act more energetic' or 'go to sleep earlier' can actually result in more energy and better habits.

This book was as much biography as it was self-help and I enjoyed it all the more for that.  Not sure if it is one of those I will re-read  but I will continue to be an avid follower of Gretchen's blog and I do recommend the book.

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