COLUMN: This year, embark on a ‘happiness project’

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By Deanna Godman

We often consider the New Year a time for new habits, new outlooks, new resolutions. And yet, we often let these resolutions peter out within a few months.  We have heard for decades that it takes 21 days (or 28 days, or 18 days, or some other short number) to form a new habit, but recent research suggests that it takes closer to 66 days for some habits and longer for others. This sounds discouraging, but by breaking up our goals for new habits into smaller goals we can have better success with keeping them.
Author Gretchen Rubin realized that while she was generally happy, she, like many of us, took too much for granted. She was haunted by the words of French novelist Collette: “What a wonderful life I’ve had! I only wish I’d realized it sooner.”
She decided to start a “happiness project” to help her keep perspective, and be grateful for the days as they passed.
She had never experienced a major tragedy in her life, but understood that it is inevitable for all of us. She thought that by exploring and identifying those things that made her happy, and finding other things that brought her joy, that she could increase the happiness in her life. This would not protect her against tragedy but might leave her with fewer regrets.
Some people who have heard about this book have dismissed it as an excuse to do whatever one wants, without thinking about consequences, but that is not the point of the book. Rubin found that her happiness was increased when she made conscious and deliberate decisions about how to do things. Doing whatever she wanted did not increase her happiness. It was increased by keeping her house tidy, engaging with her loved ones, and learning to say no (and yes) at the right times.
Rubin began by reading research that has been done on happiness. She developed 12 “commandments” out of her resolutions, such as “Act the Way I Want to Feel” and “Let It Go.” She created these commandments to remind her of her intentions. She also came up with a list of “Secrets of Adulthood,” lessons that she had learned over the years that were helpful to everyday life, such as “bring a sweater” and “it’s important to be nice to everyone.” She was happier when she utilized these lessons.
She divided her resolutions into 12 categories, such as “Marriage,” “Parenthood,” and “Mindfulness,” and worked on one category each month (adding the previous months’ resolutions).
Her resolutions were not earth shattering. They were things like “quit nagging,” “give proofs of love” and “ask for help.” They were things that she had trouble with, but it was not a complete overhaul of her entire life either.
Rubin’s resulting book, “The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean my Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun,” explains how she approached her resolutions and whether she succeeded or failed. She also writes about her method so that her readers can create their own happiness project. She acknowledges that every project would be different because every person will have personal, individual goals. One chapter in the book is “Your Happiness Project” with advice, exercises and questions to develop a similar project.
I have not developed a personal happiness project myself yet, but in the time since I read the book, I have tried to remember what I learned while reading the book. I now try to “use it up” (one of Rubin’s commandments) rather than save treasures or gifts for a day that may never come. And I remind myself often, “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” – my favorite of Rubin’s Secrets of Adulthood.
Even if the goal is something other than happiness, the way Rubin devises her plan, by reading research, creating charts, and developing action items makes is a great book to read to help implement New Year’s resolutions.
The book is available at the Spencer County Public Library.