I’ve been thinking about and reading a lot about ‘minimalism’ recently, the idea of minimising your possessions and living more intentionally. I watched a documentary about the movement a while ago, right at the beginning of my reading fewer books challenge, and it appealed to me then but I’d half-forgotten about it until recently. It’s a concept that interests me, one that sits quite neatly with the ideals of the Tao, and I’ve been reading around a bit and a came across a reference to this book – Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project – and I’m not sure exactly why but I decided to pick it up. This in itself is an act of extreme strangeness on my part. For one, I am buying very few books (I’ve had a bit of a splurge recently, which is bad, but nothing compared to my splurges last year), book acquisition is quite anti-minimalist (though I will be passing it on to a friend shortly, so I’m not ‘hoarding’ it), but the most strikingly odd issue is this, and I can hardly believe I’m admitting it: The Happiness Project is basically a self-help book. Self-help books are the kind of books I avoid at all costs, I am and have always been snarkily derisory of them – you’re never going to fix your life with a pithy little book telling you how to live. Now I love philosophy, I love reading about culture and ideas and things like Walden which involve changing your life and connecting with nature. But this book is a best-seller firmly in the self-help genre – pretty much the antithesis of everything I value – and I seriously considered not reviewing it, but here I am in full confession. Yes: I read a self-help book. I may actually have finally gone insane.
As it happens The Happiness Project doesn’t have a great deal in common with the ideals of minimalism, though there are some interesting parallels. Irrespective I read it and I read it all the way to the end. Perhaps I read it so you don’t have to, but nothing in life is ever quite that simple and I don’t want to jump to the end of my review right in the beginning so let’s swing back to a more traditional approach. So what is The Happiness Project all about? The clue is definitely in the name. Gretchen Rubin decided to bring more happiness into her life, and she approached this by creating a happiness project. Starting in January she started to try to make changes which would make her life happier. This involved an incredible amount of reading, a large degree of thinking, many epiphanies and lots and lots of wall chart. In outlining her plan she identified a number of distinct areas she wanted to work on: boosting her energy levels, focusing on her marriage, pushing herself in her work, focusing on her parenting skills, playing and being joyful, being a great friend, buying happiness (honestly I kind of skipped this chapter because it was in degrees hopelessly naïve and in other respects so close to a truth it was painful to see it so determinedly missed), thinking about transcendence or eternity(almost skipped this one too, for the same reasons), being more present or mindful, pursuing passions and having a better attitude. She chunked these up into monthly goals and set about building a wall chart – her ‘resolutions chart’ – by means of which she made her commitments and measured her performance. After each month she would add a new set of resolutions and she would strive to achieve those too.
It was a good job she put ‘boosting energy’ at the start of her project because it must have taken a considerable amount of energy to keep it all up. As the tasks increased, the scope of her explorations developed, I found myself growing exhausted just reading about them. In the first month she committed to getting more sleep, exercising more, getting more organised – specifically decluttering which is, perhaps, where the connection to minimalism arises – tackling a nagging task and acting more energetic. Next month she added quitting nagging, not expecting praise or appreciation, fighting right (with humour, not rancour), not dumping insecurities or anger on her partner and giving proofs of love. This involved an incredible amount of work, selflessness and, somehow, organising parties. You can see how exhausting this must be. As Gretchen describes her journey, she also includes some interesting quotes from writers she admires or who have something interesting to say on the subject (Samuel Johnson appears frequently), psychological research which supports or challenges her ideas, as well as extracts of responses she’d received on her blog (there is a happiness project blog, from which this book was born) to questions she’d asked her readers about the subject.
As she goes along her journey, Gretchen shares her ‘commandments’ – the moments of epiphany in which she could distil something she’d learned into a little phrase which summarised a key learning. This is one of a number of things I found irritating about this book. The First Commandment was “Be Gretchen”, a reminder to always be consistent with herself and her values and not to try to be something different to who she is. So, for example, whilst she might like to read Aristotle what she loves to read is children’s literature so perhaps prioritising children’s literature is what would make her life happier. As she went through her experience she added to her commandments. Often commandments, along with other natty bits of information in the book, required italics. I also found this irritating, perhaps because I recognise my own propensity for highlighting words with italics as though using italics somehow make an observation more important.
The sheer level of control and activity and wall-chartery required in this happiness project was another source of extreme discomfort on my part. It is an issue that Gretchen herself acknowledges when at one point her husband questions whether the whole project isn’t just an exercise in extreme control. The fact that the end of the year is designated ‘Boot camp perfect’ month only adds to that impression. I’m not sure whether the project could actually make someone happy or just so busy they didn’t have time to notice they weren’t happy [stop me now]. And there’s a perkiness to the writing which I found wearing, though Gretchen is keen to point out her flaws – her nagging and argumentative nature, her quickness to anger and tendency to be a bit of a buzz-kill [yet these are all traits I recognise in myself when I’m in my most self-critical hyper-perfectionist mode and I began to wonder if Gretchen was, in fact, all of these things or just a perfectionist with a penchant for organisational stationery. Another trait I might, slightly, recognise] – and there came a point just past half-way through the book when I was reading and I was thinking to myself ‘who does she remind me of?’ and I realised, with shock and awe, that it was, in fact, the unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt fame.
And I realised something else at that point: I like Kimmy Schmidt, and perhaps, deep down, my discomfort was partly driven by the fact that I also like Gretchen. Sure there are flaws in her system, and if you’re not the kind of person who can throw all your boundless energy into everything – creating writing and reading groups, volunteering at scout troupes, going to weird classes (laughing yoga?!? Even Gretchen wasn’t keen on that) being relentlessly forgiving and kind, doing your sister’s holiday shopping, etc etc – it’s all a little bit exhausting but Gretchen is at pains, in the entirety of the book, to point out that this was both an experiment and a journey that worked for her and her key advice was that First Commandment “Be [insert own name]”: find a happiness project that works for you. And I couldn’t help admiring that, just as I admire Kimmy Schmidt with her unflagging positivity and relentless desire to love and experience life.
Gretchen’s project isn’t for me, though I did learn something from her book and how to bring more happiness into my life. Some of her points are obvious, but sometimes the obvious needs some driving home for you to pay attention to it: be yourself, follow your own desires, love what you love, prioritise what matters, if you commit to be happy you will probably become happier. The how you do it is more down to you. And that, in itself, was revealing. It made me think about all the things that have been absorbing my mind recently, the ideas and philosophies which have most struck a chord with me – minimalism and Taoism – and why that is and how those things might lead to a happier life.
In a strange coincidence when I finished reading The Happiness Project I picked up The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton, which I’ve borrowed recently from the library, and in the preface Merton expresses more succinctly and neatly than I have here my reservations about Gretchen’s methods. When Gretchen strives relentlessly to fulfil her resolutions, Taoism sees the acquisition of happiness very differently; it advocates not-striving, the principle of wu wei is that we are most in tune with the world, with ourselves, when we do nothing, that it is an approach of non-action rather than action that puts us in touch with the mysterious Tao. I read the following as an ancient critique of Gretchen’s methods, sent down through the ages, and it was, perhaps, an example of wu wei in action: I felt discomfort with what I had read, I was not seeking the wisdom to explain that discomfort and so the Tao delivered it anyway. But I’ll let Merton express it in his much more capable way:
“He sees “happiness” and “the good” as “something to be attained,” and thus he places them outside himself in the world of objects. In so doing, he becomes involved in a division from which there is no escape: between the present, in which he is not yet in possession of what he seeks, and the future in which he thinks he will have what he desires…”
“The more one seeks “the good” outside oneself as something to be acquired, the more one is faced with the necessity of discussing, studying, understanding, analysing the nature of the good. The more, therefore, one becomes involved in abstractions and in the confusion of divergent opinions. The more “the good” is analysed, the more it is treated as something to be attained by special virtuous techniques, the less real it becomes[…] And as the end becomes more remote and more difficult, the means become more elaborate and complex, until finally the mere study of the means become so demanding that all ones efforts must be concentrated on this, and the end is forgotten.”
Yet whilst it is true to say it’s a critique there’s another school of thought which is that it is simply a different way of trying to achieve the same thing: to be in harmony with oneself and the world. Gretchen does it one way (not a Taoist way) and the Tao sets out another way. My way and Gretchen’s have parted, but not before I’ve learned some interesting things, been entertained and admitted my foray into self-help hasn’t been quite as painful as I’ve pretended it to be [italics included].