Don't Worry, Be Happy
Is happiness a choice? Two books offer surprising answers.
“If only we’d stop trying to be happy,” novelist Edith Wharton reputedly said, “we could have a pretty good time.” I happen to share her outlook, so I was determined to maintain my skepticism as I sampled a couple of recent titles on the topic. But my emotional detachment didn’t last long.
Like Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia, Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project chronicles a year-long quest—explained, sort of, by the book’s windy subtitle: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun. Instead of recipes, however, Rubin tests non-pharmaceutical mood enhancers.
She was never deeply unhappy, Rubin announces; she simply felt she could use an emotional tune-up. So she goes about her business, showing how small changes in outlook, routine and behavior can lead to a big happiness bounce.
The book is divided into 12 chapters, each targeting a specific monthly goal: Boost energy in January, remember love in February and so on. Though Rubin quotes some of those who commented on her Happiness blog, she mainly works on herself: She is her own canvas.
The title of the book threw me at first, “happiness” and “project” not making a natural pair. But Rubin’s endearingly methodical approach—her “Resolutions Chart,” her gratitude notebook, her “Secrets of Adulthood” list—ultimately won me over. Rubin grew up in Kansas City, and she brings a Midwestern can-do spirit to her task. She’s also remarkably candid: I give points to a woman who admits she snores at night and eats brown sugar straight out of the jar.
Nothing radical in her how-to-get-happy advice: Count your blessings, be generous to others, seek out the unfamiliar, risk failure, ask for help. But the author makes it all seem so feasible that reading her book becomes a guilty pleasure; despite my planned objectivity, The Happiness Project cheered me up.
For a thoughtful take on happiness from a less mainstream observer, try Ariel Gore’s Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness. Gore’s background differs sharply from Rubin’s: She grew up in a San Francisco suburb with a mother and stepfather she describes as “low-income intellectuals who never told anyone to smile.” In high school, she reveals, “I ran with grumpy Goths,” while in college and grad school she “hung out with pissed off young feminists.” Years later, Gore is horrified by her pre-teen daughter’s announced intention to become a cheerleader.
Bluebird is anything but downbeat or doctrinaire, though. Gore has deep wellsprings of humor and charm, and much of Bluebird reads like a memoir, with the author proving her points through personal anecdote.
For example, she remembers her younger self driving her beat-up Dodge across the San Francisco Bay Bridge and lusting after the luxury cars she spies through “her pebble-cracked windshield…If I were ever blessed with a shiny new car, I thought, I would know just how lucky I was….
“A few years later, I got just what I’d dreamed of. Shiny and red. I was ecstatic…I drove that thing around like I owned the freeways. I turned up the stereo. I blasted the heater…I appreciated what I had.
“And then…After about two weeks…I got used to it…That shiny red car ceased to have any impact on my day-to-day emotional life…”
Sound familiar? It did to me. The phenomenon is called “hedonic adaptation,” the author explains, and in her case it meant that “my own personal happiness thermostat regulated my good cheer back to blasé entitlement.” In other words we all have a happiness “set point” that’s hard to dislodge, even when good things (or very bad ones) happen to us.
Set-point theories, Gore suggests, represent not the “limit of our potential but as…a starting place.” Some scientists, she reports, now believe that as much as 40 percent of our happiness is under our own control. “Forty percent happiness,” she concludes, “is something we can work with.”
The happiest moments in both books come when your own experience is reflected on the page. Reading The Happiness Project, for example, I laughed when I encountered Rubin’s description of herself as a (reformed) “topper”—the kind of person who says to a friend, “You think you had a crazy morning? Let me tell you about mine!” A self-involved friend said that to me just the other day.
Am I happier for having read these books? I suppose so. Will I stay that way? Tough to say—especially since it happens to be the wrong question: As Ariel Gore writes in Bluebird, “the happiness we are trying to grasp is the experience of trying to grasp it.”
That means it all comes down to the pursuit of happiness. Now where have we heard that one before?
Evelyn Renold is a writer and editorial consultant in New York. She is the former executive editor of Lear’s magazine and senior deputy editor of Good Housekeeping.