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The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

Do you ever feel that sometimes a book comes along at just the very right time? The way a friend might unexpectedly show up when you really really need her. Sometimes the book is an engrossing page-turner and you curl up with it on your couch and shut the world away. At other times, it’s smart and well-researched and you think your brain probably expanded as you read to the last page. Then there’s the other kind of book. The kind that makes you look at your life and not want to necessarily change it but maybe change how you approach certain parts of it. For me the friend who came along when I really really needed her was the book The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin.

First, a little background. My anxiety has never been debilitating. In fact it’s usually a ripple beneath the surface. However, lately, my anxiety has increased. In the New York Times series on anxiety, Paul Vandevelder so eloquently and vividly described his first horrifying attack this way: 

Even if I live to be a thousand years old I won’t forget my first panic attack, that first surreal journey into the paranormal dimensions of my cerebral cortex. Decades later, the memory is all white heat and jagged edges. Psychologists call these acute anxiety episodes “little deaths,” but victims of them will tell you there is nothing little about them. Next to a panic attack, death, when it finally comes, will be skipping through tulips.

If you know what an anxiety or a panic attack is like, you’re reading this and thinking, “Exactly. Yes. This is it. I need to show this to someone I know. This guy nailed it!” If you don’t know what it’s like, you’re probably a bit terrified but a little more well informed.  That last line is spooky: Next to a panic attack, death, when it finally comes, will be skipping through tulips.

I had what I considered to be the grand mal of panic attacks recently. It was like my brain was dislocating from reality. I don’t like to recount the minute by minute display of symptoms because just thinking about it makes me feel that spiders might crawl up my neck. Anyways, where was I going with this? Oh yes, from that episode to The Happiness Project.

This is how I got there. I’m a mad googling research junkie in everyday life and even more so when I’m the topic of inquiry.  There are a lot of factors in my recent life that helped to create the perfect storm of cerebral unsteadiness. My grandma died recently. I was hungover. I hadn’t ate much that morning and was dehydrated. I have fears related to looking at my future with my job. I think about having or not having a kid. I’m on medication for a physical issue but it has been known to affect the brain. Could one single factor be responsible for my panic attack? I’ll never know. I can’t replay the last month of my life repeatedly, while trying to isolate different variables. The conclusion I’m left with though is, something’s got to give.

I saw a therapist who specializes in anxiety and she also happens to work in the area of vocational counseling. She believes it’s possible to love your job so that you never have to work a day in your life. Can you believe that? She’s telling me this right after I wrote my last post where I belittled advocates of that theory and rolled my eyes at their sweeping pronouncements. However, she claims it is possible and cites her own life as an example. I am enthralled by the prospect of working with her and seeing what changes I can make in my professional life so that I can get closer to a peaceful work/life balance. I think how we feel about our job translates to the rest of our lives. We spend 40 or more hours doing the actual work each day. Then there’s the long commute and getting dressed in the morning, donning the specific garb that we put on, that says, “This is my work persona.” These things are impactful. They bleed and blur over the lines of  9 to 5 clock markings.

So, going forward, I am excited to explore this topic with her. I am ready to make some changes. I want to look at my life and see where I’m holding back, discover what gives me true satisfaction, test the limits of what I think I can do, and be ambitious enough to make the changes that take courage. She said I’m lucky because I’m young (yeah, 35 is young!), motivated, and I have a supportive husband. Let’s see where this journey goes!

Somewhere on the path of self-exploration and fumbling toward meaning, I encountered The Happiness Project. I immediately knew this was for me. I’m usually cynical of books that seem like hackneyed philosophies about transcendent principles but something was different about this one. Even my critical sister asked, “How do you know this isn’t another cliché self-help book?” I know because the author isn’t making grand general statements. It’s more about concrete action items. It’s about little things like making your bed in the morning and tackling nagging tasks. Each person’s happiness project will look different and this book is merely a recap of her personal journey over 12 months.

I just finished the introduction and her first month, where the focus was Energy. I love Gretchen’s penchant for lists and deep self-penetrating inward focus. I like how she wants this to be simple but realizes at times it is and yet it isn’t. I like how her goal is to be more grateful.

The words of the writer Colette had haunted me for years: “What a wonderful life I’ve had. I only wish I’d realized it sooner.” I didn’t want to look back, at the end of my life or after some great catastrophe, and think, “How happy I used to be then, if only I’d realized it.”

She is striving to recognize and appreciate more of her life. She is systematically analyzing the factors that contribute to and encourage these feelings. I’m very excited to look at my own life with a new lens and start applying some of her insight to my journey. I’ll be tracking my thoughts on this blog. More Compassion seems to blend beautifully with the goals in The Happiness Project. If you have a chance to pick up the book, do so. It’s worth it!