Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Book Series: The Happiness Project

I was planning to write about Elizabeth Edwards's book Resilience for the next book in my series (previously recommended:  A Grief Observed and Healing After Loss), but Tiffany asked about Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project and I mentioned it last time, so here's my take on what I got out of this book. 

I'd been reading a lot of stuff about grief--more books I'll cover later--but I decided on vacation that instead of focusing so much of the process of grieving, I'd work on a change of pace.  I know I will never be the same kind of happy I was before Eliza died, but I also think maybe there is something to the idea that deep sorrow carves out spaces for great joy.  So I just wanted to read more about what it means to be happy, as I consider what it would take for me to feel that way again.

And I liked Gretchen Rubin's book--maybe because she reminds me of me in a lot of ways (she's a bookworm, she likes to be a know-it-all, she likes to do research and take notes, she has a daughter named Eliza, she's from Missouri).  Of course, her project is NOT about coping with grief.  Basically she just realized one day that she wasn't fully appreciating life and she wanted to do more to actively find happiness.  If you're in the throes of grief, that thought feels kind of annoying.  (I would not have wanted to read this even a month ago.)  She acknowledges, however, that it's important to find happiness so that if (when?) something bad does happen, you have that previous happiness to cushion you.

I don't think we can really protect ourselves from grief (if you know how, do share!) but I do know that if other parts of my life had been unhappy before Eliza (if David and I were having marital problems, for example, or if we were financially stressed, or if one of our parents were sick) then it's undoubtedly true that Eliza's death would be even more difficult to deal with.  In some ways it feels especially unfair that everything else in my life was working out perfectly according to plan and we had done everything right and we were suddenly denied the one thing that would have made it all complete and perfect (damn it all to hell anyway).  But the truth is that if other things had been shitty and we lost our baby, well, yeah.  That would have been even worse.

So in this book, Rubin relates her year-long experiment in increasing her happiness, and I think she has an engaging prose style and an endearing amount of anxiety about the legitimacy of her project.  She's has done a lot of research and she argues that being happy is not selfish because your happiness contributes to the happiness of those around you (which also explains why so many people want to avoid the grief-stricken--FYI, we're kind of a drag). 

The book documents the strategies and methods she used to increase her personal happiness (and thereby the happiness of her family and friends) over the course of a year.  She offers simple, pragmatic steps for doing so, steps that anyone could follow or (as she suggests) create similar strategies for achieving your own goals.  I would say Rubin is trying to move from moderately happy to very happy, whereas I am obviously in a different place.  But I do feel like I was able to get some important things out of her book, and I even felt sort of like my old self as I was reading it.

I've followed a few of her suggestions, and here's the weird thing:  Even if you are in the throes of grief, I promise you that a neatly organized closet actually does make you feel better.

It doesn't make you feel less sad about your loss.  But it just makes you feel better about something else.

My therapist was (surprisingly, I thought) excited to hear that we bought a new mattress (oh, yeah, I took down previous post about "what mattress do we buy?" because we bought ourselves a Sealy on Sunday.  More about that later.  Because I defy you to think of anything more riveting than a blog about a new mattress.)  Anyway, she was happy because she said that it meant we were doing small things to make our lives easier and more pleasant.  And when your life is really shitty, she recommends doing everything you can to make it a little bit better (which makes me think I should make another massage appointment...).

This speaks once again to the theory that happiness independent of unhappiness (or the difference between "positive affect" and "negative affect," as Rubin says when she cites psychology studies).  I'm still trying to wrap my head around the idea that I can do small things to make myself "happier," knowing that it won't really fix my "unhappiness."  But I've started considering some of her suggestions.

For example, Rubin talks about how as a kid she enjoyed making books of quotations or stories and pictures she would cut out from magazines.  I used to like doing mod-podge projects when I was younger and lately I've been collecting snippets of poems and song lyrics and writings about grief and blogging about some of them or haphazardly collecting them in various notebooks and journals, but I decided to get one blank book, and collect some of the pictures and quotations I'm run across, and actually sit down and make a little project of it.  (Something to keep me busy now that baseball season is starting and the TV will constantly be on the MLB channel.)  This is a way for me to acknowledge my grief and think about Eliza, but at the same time do something that feels kind of productive but doesn't require critical thinking skills.   "Happy" is still a hard word to swallow, but this little project is definitely something I look forward to working on, and something that leaves me feeling like I've completed a tangible task that doesn't have anything to do with vacuuming dog hair off furniture.

The truth is that in many ways, The Happiness Project just tells you to do all of the things you know you should be doing anyway--cleaning out your closet, being nice to your spouse, giving other people the benefit of the doubt, not drinking heavily, exercising--but instead of making it a "should" list, she offers lively examples and compelling evidence for how and why each of these things actually increased her sense of happiness.

I found especially useful the chapter about her marriage.  Fortunately for us, I think this terrible experience has brought David and me closer together.  But that doesn't mean that it's been easy (hello, therapy!).  Rubin's book explains some of the issues that I'm sure many couples have experienced--whether or not they have lost a child.  I thought this was interesting:

Both men and women find relationships with women to be more intimate and enjoyable than those with men.  Women have more feelings of empathy for other people than men do (though women and men have about the same degree of empathy for animals, whatever that means).  In fact, for both men and women--and this finding struck me as highly significant--the most reliable predictor of not being lonely is the amount of contact with women.  Time spent with men doesn't make a difference.

Now these are big generalizations that Rubin's making, but I think they resonate with psychological studies we're probably all familiar with about the differences between men and women, and they certainly correspond with David's own admission that it is hard for him to see me hurting and know that there is no "fix" available to him.  Rubin and her husband are dealing with more superficial daily issues, but she realizes,

not only was he constitutionally less oriented to having long heart-to-heart conversations, he also tried to avoid any topic that got me upset, because he found it so painful to see me feeling blue.  Now that didn't let him off the hook altogether--sometimes I needed a sympathetic listener, even if he didn't feel like playing that role--but at least I understood his perspective.

 David is always willing to talk with me about Eliza, but he is also relentlessly forward-thinking and ridiculously optimistic.  Even as I rely on him for those qualities, I also have found myself sort of frustrated with his certainty that we'll eventually be okay again.  Sometimes I need to dwell in the grief, to acknowledge the magnitude of the unfairness.  I know I can count on David to listen (and Lord knows I need him to be a good listener), but I should also keep in mind that sometimes we'll both feel better if I have that conversation with another bereaved mom, or one of my girlfriends who is biologically inclined to listen to me. 

Rubin also offers other quotations and comments that I easily applied to my experience with grief.  She quotes Pierre Reverdy:  There is no love; there are only proofs of love.

This is something that I've always believed--love is a verb--it's something you do, not something you just feel or say.  That's why we should think about whether we are as kind and polite to our spouses and families as we are to our coworkers and acquaintances.  (But my acquaintances don't leave crumbs on the kitchen counter!  And they don't complain that I have "too many library books stacked in the living room!")  As Rubin writes, Whatever love I might feel in my heart, others will see only my actions.

This is true anytime, but it struck me as especially relevant in regard to the importance of sending a sympathy card, of picking up the phone, of sending an e-mail, of leaving a blog comment, of sending a quick text message that says, "Thinking of you."  Because no matter how often I think of the other bereaved parents I know, or anybody I know who's grieving or struggling, or my friends who have been supportive, unless I tell them that they are in my thoughts and prayers (and then go ahead and tell them again later), they have no way to know.  We got sympathy cards from some unexpected people--a neighbor I only greet with a casual wave, a fellow graduate student in my program whom I haven't seen in two years.  Whatever they might have felt when they heard about Eliza, I would have never known they were thinking of me or praying for us if they hadn't taken the time to send a card and tell us.

Rubin also says something else that I found really important, especially because trying to define "happiness" after Eliza is such a nebulous, slippery business.  Happiness doesn't always make you feel happy.

It seems like that statement is self-negating, but I think I understand it.  Sometimes happiness comes from doing things you don't want to do, or facing truths you don't want to face.  Making an effort can be exhausting.  But it's not just about making yourself exercise or not eating that pint of ice cream at midnight.  It's also a way to understand that happiness doesn't mean that everything is okay.  Pursuing happiness is not about rose-colored glasses and willful naivete; it's more about making the effort to recognize the good in small things and trying to find a sense of peace even in the worst moments.

Rubin quotes one of her blog readers, who wrote

Remembering that joy exists is tough when you've been traumatized.  Joy is a big concept and utterly unbelievable when we are in the depths of catastrophe.  But happiness...happiness is more accessible.  We can be miserable and then find ourselves laughing, even if just for a few seconds.  It reaffirms the will to live, and from there we can branch out.  Happiness, and the belief we have in it, is the foundation for survival.

In addition to input from her blog readers, Rubin offers a few little nuggets of wisdom from her research.  These are some that stuck with me:

Those of us who have experienced grief often say that our friends are a kind of lifeline, even if we have to push them away for a while at first.  Rubin quotes Epicurus:  Of all the things that wisdom provides for living one's entire life in happiness, the greatest by far is the possession of friendship.

I got an e-mail last night from the wife of one of David's college buddies.  I've always liked her, but we are not really close friends--we've only hung out a handful of times at weddings or when the guys have gotten together.  Still, she took the time to sit down and say, "I've been reading your blog and thinking about you and I don't know what to say but I'm sorry."  Of course I give all of our friends the benefit of the doubt, and I would assume that even those who aren't in touch with us frequently are sympathetic for us.  I mean, they're not soulless jerks, they probably just feel awkward and don't know what to say.  But she didn't know what to say and she took the time to say something anyway.  Even though she might have felt uncertain or awkward about it.  And that makes such a difference.

Rubin advises that when we're feeling frustrated with others, we should cut them some slack or, Find explanations in charity.  Given that I walked around for about two months like a zombie, I know that we have no idea what kind of grief or stress the strangers we encounter might be dealing with.  Since Eliza died, friends of ours have experienced the sudden death of their dad and a cancer diagnosis.  And yet we are all struggling to function in our ordinary lives and go about our business even though some of our deepest fears have been realized.  I have a whole new appreciation for the idea that everyone we meet is fighting a battle.

And she also says that if you're trying to be happy, Don't let perfect be the enemy of good.

Rubin's talking about taking risks, trying new things, not being afraid to fail.

I think about it another way.  My life will NEVER be perfect.  I will never have Eliza here with me and therefore the "perfect" life I envisioned is absolutely unattainable.  I'm struggling to comprehend that and I'm a long way from being at peace with it.  I was pretty in love with that perfect vision of my life.

But I know I'm starting to move forward because I am beginning to realize that just because my life will never be perfect, that doesn't mean that it's not worth having.

I have to give up on perfect.  That much is clear.

But we are still working for the good here, even if we can't have the perfect life I hoped for.  And that, I think, is what my happiness project is all about.


  1. I started reading this at Christmastime, got about halfway through, got busy, & have picked up other books in the meantime (I've developed a bad habit of doing that lately...). This post makes me want to pick it up again & finish it. Part of me though it was a little simplistic, but I did enjoy reading about her research & how she tackled each aspect of her life that she wanted to work on.

    I really enjoyed your comments, especially those at the end about the perfect life vs a good life. : )

  2. I liked quite a few things (should've taken notes!!!), but two things stick out:

    The blog post regarding laughing in small moments and the realization that those pockets {of happiness} mean we are living.

    ...and of course, not letting perfect be the enemy of good. Yes, we're still working on good around here, but I am willing to acknowledge that others in life are not off the hook with grief. I've experienced something inconceivable, but it doesn't mean my friends are exempt from experiencing deep pain and grief. I have to cut them some slack.

    As for grief notes/cards, initially I would cry at the sight of an envelope. Maybe because Andrew died around Christmas and I received 1 Christmas card to ever 4 Sympathy cards. I HATED that. Now, I am more appreciative and possibly a sign that I am maturing in understanding others and myself in the midst (and despite) my grief.

    Thanks for sharing. I'm interested in this book.

  3. Brooke, I love so much how you write, and look forward to reading every post!

    I loved that "Happiness does not always make you feel happy". That really resonated with me. To an outsider in my day to day, I look like I am doing pretty well! I take my son out for playdates, just got my hair did, and go for long walks and bikerides. I laugh at silly jokes, and love to re-hash last nights "Dancing with the Stars" with my girlfriends. Do I look happy? Yes. Do I find happiness in small things? Yes. Am I happy? No. But I am trying. Really hard. And I think that counts for something...

    I also LOVED your description of Love as a verb, and that "Whatever love I might feel in my heart, others will see only in my actions". I don't think I have ever read a truer statement. I am going to try and repeat this to myself every day, and try to be a better "lover" Not in the sexual way (well...), but be a better friend, wife, daughter, sister to those I "love". Thank you for sharing this.

    Also, at the beginning you talked about pulling pictures from magazines etc. when you were younger, and I used to do that too. Now with the computer, it's not so easy. But, I just came across a website (I have no affiliation) called pinterest (dot com) where if you see a picture you like you can "pin it" and create your own virtual corkboard. I just started using it, but I can see becoming hooked. It might be something you might like.

    Anhoo, sorry for the looooooong post!


  4. This was really helpful for me to read today, Brooke, thank you. So helpful, in fact, that I went and organized my closet (no joke) after reading it, and, I'll be damned - I do feel a little different.

    (Gah, see, I'm still squeamish about using the word "happy" even after your wisdom on the subject.)

    Thinking of you and Eliza, today and always. xo

  5. lol, you say you feel "famous" when i mention you in my blog. that's the same way i feel when i see my name in your blog. :) watch out tomorrow. you get another shout-out in my blog...

    thx for reviewing this. it seems like i now look to you for which book i should read next. when my friend sent me the article about things to do to increase my happiness i have to admit, i was really annoyed. not at my friend, but at gretchen. i just thought, "seriously, my child died. you think my happiness can be increased???!!!" but as i read, it seemed like i had done a lot of the things she had suggested anyway. like one day i *did* completely go through my closet and drawers and purge a lot of my stuff. and i felt SO much better. not about what had happened, but better that 1 area of my life was in order. i also had a purging session at work. i became addicted to purging stuff b/c of the high it gave me (man, do i sound incredibly lame right now). but as my therapist says, the danger with that is that it eventually comes to an end, and you crash. and i did. :(

    i can relate when you talk about your hubby being optimistic. i'm at that stage with D now. he seems to think we'll be ok. and somehow, my heart doesn't want to believe that. my heart is holding onto this sadness, and thinks that i will always be miserable without Juju. i truly do hope that D is right. i can't imagine living the rest of my life in this pain. :'(

  6. Oh Brooke! you are so gifted. Love every thing you write. I wish I had a day dedicated to just read all that you have. Loads of good wishes and vibes to you, your family (especially lil Eliza).