On a New York City bus one rainy morning, Gretchen Rubin looked through its window onto her magical Manhattan life, brimming with love for her husband, two daughters, and writing career and wondered: Why wasn't she enjoying it more? Why wasn't she happier or living up to her noblest ideals?
That line of questions, several years ago, prompted her to pen the bestselling book, The Happiness Project, in which Rubin documents with painstaking analysis (she's a former lawyer, after all) the effort to savor her life, inspiring countless fans to create more contentment.
Her latest book, Happier at Home, had similarly humble beginnings. Rubin was unloading the dishwasher when she felt flooded with a sense of homesickness, a nostalgia for what was already happening in her midst: the sounds of her girls playing "restaurant" and her husband watching golf on TV.
Overcome with love for her home and a revelation of its centrality in life, Rubin decided to do what it is she does: combine exhaustive research with creative thinking in the art of conquering a challenge. In this case, Rubin plumbs the depth of home life to determine how to enhance it, to feel more "at home, at home," as she puts it.
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To do that, she takes an inventory of the elements of home life and sets about improving them.
She starts by tackling possessions, dissecting the burden and pleasure of her things. Sifting through her stuff, she plucks out favorite items, curating prized displays of her beloved children's books and the bird figurines from each of her grandmothers. She parts with the broken or outdated things, including her four old laptops (she deposits them at her daughter's school recycling drive but not before photographing the trusty companions.) The family pictures that have lived so long in the same spot that they began to blend into the background? She switches those with a grouping of Valentine's Day pictures to draw fresh attention to memories. As for projects waiting to be completed, a quick cost-benefit analysis determines which ones deserve the effort. Assembling the backlog of digital photos into books was well worth the investment, so Rubin vowed she could "suffer for 15 minutes" each day to finish the task, using completion, not perfection as her goal.
If you're nodding right now, that's because the genius of these details, apart from the obvious (ridding clutter beautifies one's space and makes room for meaningful objects), is that we can all emphatically relate to them.
I think of my own photo albums waiting to be filled with pictures of momentous trips and occasions and the sense of accompanying guilt of putting off these projects, as well as the consequent joy of sharing and leafing through them.
The fact is, fostering happiness isn't always the easy choice, not in the short-term anyway. These things can take some degree of effort. But the real work is constantly getting to know oneself well enough to realize which investments will really ratchet up one's happiness, Rubin explains.
"It's sort of tiresome to be that self-aware or to be trying to shape your actions," Rubin tells U.S. News of the process that's clarified her predilections and limitations. "In a way it makes me less happy. In a way it makes me happier. I see where I can change my life for the better." The sentiment, and perhaps the book's overarching lesson, recalls the "Serenity Prayer," attributed to theologian Reinhold Neibuhr, and popularized on keychains and in support groups, as follows: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference."
Of course, sometimes you don't know your capacity until you test it. So Rubin tries out a dizzying array of potential happiness boosters to find out what works for her (Wednesday afternoon adventures with her daughter: check) and what doesn't (acupuncture: uh, "check please"). For Rubin, a confirmed Type-A personality, her methodical, systematic approach yields lots of answers. And that's meant to provide a kind of CliffsNotes on the subject for readers. "I tried all this stuff so you don't have to," she says.
But what if you're less driven than Rubin? No problem, she says. Often, the solutions for a happier life are simple ones, resulting from a few moments of thought and follow-through, she explains. "They don't really take extra time," she says. "There's a mindfulness component," and "most of these things are very reinforcing."
For example, each time her kids interrupted her while she was working in her home office, she would snap at them—a response that filled her with enormous regret. She considered the cycle and realized that if they simply knocked first, she'd feel less disturbed. Knocking instituted. Problem solved.
What else? Rubin created a family practice of giving "warm greetings and farewells" upon leaving and coming back home—a rule that everyone embraced, so to speak. She emulated a friend's ritual of making festive holiday breakfasts. A few minutes of adding green food coloring to the morning meal on St. Patrick's Day filled the girls with glee—and bragging rights at school. She faced her fear of driving to unload the sole burden from her husband and found that, although she doesn't much like it, she can drive if need be. And she decided to take control of "the cubicle in her pocket," the wireless devices that worsened her sense of responsibility to be working all the time. "I always feel pressed for time, as if someone were shoving a pistol in my back and muttering 'Move, move, move!'" she writes. So off these devices go, when it comes to family time or traveling (the latter tends to spark "Aha!" moments, as indicated by the city bus ride.)
The goal of mastery threads through the book and reflects its consummate goal: taking control over one's contentedness. Rubin's inspiration comes from philosophers like Samuel Johnson, one of her heroes, and her writing aims to emulate such literature, which muses on the human condition. But when it comes to happiness, Rubin counters the view of many of the great luminaries, who argue that happiness is a byproduct, not a goal. "We're more likely to hit a target by aiming at it than by ignoring it, and happiness is no different," she writes. "At least in my case, I found that thinking directly about how to be happier helped me to discover the changes likely to build happiness."
Rubin crafts mantras to optimize areas of home life like time ("cram my day with what I love") and parenthood ("pay attention"). But she insists that these ideas are not revelatory. "It's not like I'm holding out some magical set of answers," Rubin says. No. She provides something infinitely more valuable: practical application of universal aphorisms. And for many of her readers, borrowing a tip of hers here and there can help them attain some of that mastery and joy in daily life.
That quest, to take hold of life and hold it still, is what inspires people to take photographs or create works of art. In Rubin's case, it's to write a book on mastering life—in all of its mundane majesty.