My First (sorta) Book Review

happiness project

I am blessed to belong to an awesome book club that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It may well be the best club ever: not too big or small, not too casual or cerebral. Everything about it is just right. I often steal the line, “a wine club that likes to read”, because we enjoy our libations and fellowship as much or more than our book discussions. There is just one teensy problem with me and my club-I don’t like reading.

Don’t get me wrong; I used to love reading. But something oddly snapped off in the past couple of years. First it was fiction; I didn’t have any interest in novels. One of my club members Diane would say, “You know Angela, she only wants to read if she learns something,” which was true. But I also didn’t have the energy to follow a story. The difficulty came when I started losing interest in non-fiction. It may have been around the time of my Leadership Augusta Board Chair gig; perhaps I was too stressed or something. I could only muster enough attention for a blog or magazine article.

I might be back on track, however, thanks to one book: The Happiness Project. While I am still not entertaining any fiction titles, I did read this entire book-something I haven’t done in a long time. Sadly, I was unable to attend the book club meeting about it, so I decided to share my assessment via blog as a quasi-book review. It may be my first official book review, but with the disclaimer that since I talk so much about myself, it really doesn’t count.

The book is by Gretchen Rubin, who spends an entire year dedicated to the pursuit of her own happiness. The goal is as lofty and esoteric as it sounds. After much research, she tackles the project in a complicated way, which is probably why I can relate to the book. Like me, Ms. Rubin makes things way more difficult than they have to be, which might seem counter-productive to her purpose, but somehow she manages to pull it off.

A warning: if your brain operates like mine, you will not be able to read this book without taking notes. After the author started rattling off multiple lists, I knew I would have to do something to keep them straight: I counted 12 Commandments of Happiness, 12 Resolutions, and 22 Secrets of Adulthood.

So let’s tackle the first list: the commandments. The word itself seems a bit strict for a book on happiness, but that is easily overlooked. More difficult to forgive is the lack of editing, because there should have been seven instead of twelve commandments. “Lighten Up”, “No calculation”, “Enjoy the Process” and “Let it Go” are really all the same message. Likewise “Do it now”, “Do what ought to be done” and “Identify the Problem”.  Of her 12 commandments, the only ones that truly resonate with me include “Be Yourself”, “Enjoy the Process” and “Be Polite and Fair”.

The “Secrets of Adulthood” seemed random and mostly inconsequential, with such tips as “Bring a sweater” and “OTC meds are very effective”. The one I pulled away from this much-longer list: “What you do every day matters more than what you do once in awhile.” So true! It reminds me of another non-fiction book, The Power of Habit. The absolute best “Secret” was #17: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good”. I wish she would have written the entire book on that one secret. It evokes a Jane Fonda quote from an Oprah interview: “The quest for perfection is toxic.”  I am convinced Ms. Fonda and Ms. Rubin are onto something.

Finally, we have the 12 Resolutions, which are tackled one per month within the given year, in the same way that name-memory game works. The life-changes she makes in January, she has to continue to do when she adds February’s resolutions, both of which must be maintained when March’s objectives are added to the mix, and so on. It seems like a daunting expectation of oneself, and certainly not an easy path to happiness. At this point, I am thinking the book should have been called the “Success Project” or the “Overacheiver Project”. I begin to get tired just from reading about everything she is making herself do.

Somehow I hang in there with her, though, I think because the quest is something that has been on my own mind lately. I certainly would give it a different flavor, but wanting to take ownership of one’s life experience is laudable, no matter the strategy. The only time I find myself skimming the book is when she includes feedback from others who have commented on her blog. I found it difficult to read on my Kindle and determine where her voice stopped and a random blogger’s voice began. I read blogs all the time; I certainly don’t want them excerpted into my first real book in over a year.

I decide that I like the book at 71% (something we never used to say before Kindles). This is the point where Ms. Rubin talks about St. Therese of Lisieux, who wrote a book called “Story of a Soul”. It is an autobiographical work from a nun who died young. In it, she speaks of another nun in the convent who got on her nerves something fierce. Everything this nun did just grated her, and you can picture someone in your own life who bothers you more than you want to admit. St. Therese managed these vexations by “treating the nun as if I loved her best of all.” She showered her nemesis with so much affection, that when St. Therese died, that nun bragged about how much happiness she had brought to the young girl. She went on and on about how she was the favorite, until a priest finally got annoyed and told her the truth.

If there is any “secret to adulthood” or path to happiness, surely it is in the core of this story. Can we find those people and occasions in life that are the most exasperating, and learn to embrace them? Can we seek out the pure joy in everything, or at least take Ms. Rubin’s advice and pretend to? Commandment #3 is “Act the Way You Want to Feel”, because eventually your mind will fall into believing whatever you are telling it. It’s like faking confidence until you become sure of yourself. Ms. Rubin quotes Herman Hesse: “Happiness is a how, not a what”, and I couldn’t agree more.

I think Ms. Rubin was channeling St. Therese when she sends a note to one of her book critics, thanking him for his helpful comments. He replies, in turn, with an acknowledgement of how impressed he was to hear from her. Apparently not many people send positive letters to people who write negatively about their work, and he admired the sentiment behind her gesture. She tells us that her first reaction of his review was to be angry, but because she was at the apex of her happiness undertaking, she knew she had to approach it differently. In doing so, she converts a downer review into a respectful exchange among peers.

If I had been able to attend my book club meeting, I would have told them I liked the book. I would have said that despite some organizational issues and the inclusion of the blog comments, I walked away with nuggets I can use. That is all I ask of a book, anyway. Life is short and time is precious, so if I am going to read, I would like to be better for it. (Diane is right about me.) Beyond the useful nuggets, though, the best thing about the Happiness Project is personal- it got me reading again.  My book club will be pleased.

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