How happy are you? Have you ever contemplated what truly makes you happy or the circumstances that make you sad? How important is happiness to you? Is it a state of mind or our circumstances that drive our level of happiness?
With our current lockdown situation still in play many of us may have been evaluating what makes us happy when a lot of our lives have been restricted. Has the absence of your family and friends made you realise how important they are to your wellbeing? Did you used to spend every weekend in the shops thinking that your happiness was derived from how many new shoes or new tech that you bought? How important is your work and your colleagues to your happiness now that this has changed?
With Mental Health Awareness Week 2020 on the 18th– 24th May, I thought there has never been a more pertinent time to do my Lunch and Learn on one of my favourite books about how to improve our happiness.
Discovering The Happiness Project
My first Easter without the kids following my divorce was not something I was looking forward to. You see Easter is my favourite of all the school holidays. We are generally experiencing warmer weather, everywhere is getting green again, there is an abundance of chocolate, we have lots of birthdays and we get a full 2-weeks off. What’s not to love? So, when I faced this time on my own, I decided to take matters into my own hands.
I booked into a hotel for a few nights with the intention of some retail therapy and taking advantage of the pool and leisure facilities. Sounds like a plan! Staying in a hotel on my own was nothing new as I used to do it for work all the time. What was new was staying at a weekend with all the couples and families.
After a successful day shopping and coming back laden with bags of loveliness I hit the pool and gym. Next to the desk where I pick up my towel, I notice a small white shabby chic bookshelf full of preloved books. The idea is that guests can take one in exchange for a charitable donation. Never one for fiction these days, I check the shelves to see if there is anything that takes my fancy. I come across one called ‘The Happiness Project’ by Gretchen Rubin. It was a number 1 New York Times bestseller and the sub title on the front cover drew me in: ‘Or, why I spent a year trying to sing in the morning, clean my closets, fight right, read Aristotle, and generally have more fun.’
So, I chucked my money in the honesty box and headed back to my room. A quick shower and change I head back downstairs to dinner. A table for one madam? Yes please!
After enjoying my dinner people watching I decide not to retreat to my room but to sit in the hotel lounge and read my new book. The lounge was a big airy space set back from the hotel lobby with comfy seating with loads of cushions and soft lighting. A great place to relax with a drink and a good book. I was captivated by Gretchen’s writing straight away and I didn’t notice the tables and chairs filling up around me. Gretchen has a lovely way of writing that is down-to earth and engaging.
By default, I am lucky to have a very positive and cheery disposition, but divorce can test even the most positive of us. So, whilst I wasn’t consciously seeking out ways to be happier, I guess the book came into my life at an opportune time whether I realised it or not.
So what is The Happiness Project about?
Gretchen spent time researching a variety of different happiness sources from poets and novelists to scientists and philosophers to religions and biographies. She put all this research together to come up with her Resolutions for the year, her 12 Commandments and her Secrets of Adulthood. From this she came up with a plan for the next 12 months. She would start in January to make changes then as the months go on, she will add more and more resolutions so that by December she was measuring herself by all of them. Each of the months focus areas are set out below:
- January – Boost Energy – Vitality
- February – Remember Love – Marriage
- March – Aim Higher – Work
- April – Lighten Up – Parenthood
- May – Be serious about play – Leisure
- June – Make time for friends – Friendship
- July – Buy some happiness – Money
- August – Contemplate the heavens – Eternity
- September – Pursue a passion – Books
- October – Pay attention – Mindfulness
- November – Keep a contented heart – Attitude
- December – Boot camp perfect – Happiness
As chapter titles they don’t mean much without the context. Gretchen is keen to highlight that this is her happiness project and ours will look different. Under each focus area she came up with some defined actions to take. For example, January’s tasks are:
- Go to sleep earlier
- Exercise better
- Toss, restore, organise
- Tackle a nagging task
- Act more energetic
After reading some hugely aspirational happiness project from other authors Gretchen felt that hers wasn’t quite ambitious, dramatic, or colourful enough. However, as she confirms this is HER project and she does not have an adventurous spirit and she liked the idea of small changes amounting to happiness within her existing life. She did not want a radical change of circumstances.
And this is what I love about the book. Its not a book telling us to reach for our dreams and go and sell our terraced house in Derby to be a WWE wrestler in Vegas. It’s a subtle approach to happiness that we can all do within our existing lives. If you want a radical overhaul of your life, then this is probably not the book for you, but you can use her thought provoking questions to get started on Your Happiness Project.
How to start Your Happiness Project
- Answer these questions as a starter to give you ideas of where to start with your resolutions.
- What makes you feel good? What activities do you find fun, satisfying, or energizing?
- What makes you feel bad? What are sources of anger, irritation, boredom, frustration, or anxiety in your life?
- Is there any way in which you don’t feel right about your life? Do you wish you could change your job, city, family situation, or other circumstances? Are you living up to your expectations for yourself? Does your life reflect your values?
- Do you have sources of an atmosphere of growth? In what elements of your life do you find progress, learning, challenge, improvement, and increased mastery?
- Make sure that you express your resolutions as concrete actions rather than abstract thoughts.
- Find a way to make yourself accountable – share with others, write a journal or blog.
- Identify your personal commandments or the principles that guide your behaviour.
Gretchen ends the book with some handy tips for your happiness project. One of them I particularly like is how money can make you happy. Often people believe that if only they could win the lottery, they would be happy. Well, happiness is much deeper than that as many new millionaires would attest to.
7 tips for how money can buy you happiness
- Strengthen social bonds – visit a family member, throw a party
- End marital conflict – throw money at a problem that is causing conflict
- Upgrade your exercise – buy new headphones, get some new gym gear that makes you feel good
- Think about fun – have a great experience rather than gain a possession
- Serenity and security – pay down your debts or add to your savings
- Pay more for healthy food – eating healthily pays off in the long run
- Spend money on someone else – give to those that it would make a difference to
I often read this book when I feel my life needs a bit of oomph or that I have got lazy with the things that I want. A lot of the points in there I already do – maybe that is why I am generally a happy person (goodness, I am annoying!). I already sing and dance around the house, I am an easy-going parent, I clear my clutter as I’m a tidy desk, tidy mind kind of person, I am a good friend etc. However, there are areas that I know I could work on: exercise, eating healthier, tackling niggling tasks, thinking about me as an individual rather than just a worker or a parent, having better self-care.
For me, I believe happiness is a state of mind and that we can find pockets of joy out of even the most troubling of circumstances. I also feel that I have control over my happiness but not that of others. I am not responsible for anyone else’s happiness. Everyone has to find their own path. Blimey, that was a bit deep. Well, after that, I’m off now to put my plan together. What about you?
Swing by our wellbeing page for more articles that may help with your happiness project.