Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Random Thoughts on the Happiness Project

I thought January would be a fitting time to read The Happiness Project, since I had heard such great things about it and it seeming very "New Year's Resolutionish".  It's a great book!  Packed with thought-provoking quotes, fascinating research and personal anecdotes, I highly recommend it, even if you're already blissfully happy and have zero interest in starting a happiness project of your own. There really is something for everyone in this book, I think.

What I really liked about it is that it's not a "recipe for success" type of book written in some cheesy all-knowing motivational guru style.  Rather it's a simple experiment, written in the form of personal anecdotes, on ways the author challenged herself to self-improve.  It's not a book that tells you to do "x, y and z" for insta-joy, but more journal of self-discovery, packed with thought-provoking tidbits of failures and successes along the way.

 Gretchen (we're on a first name basis, now that I've finished the book! Ha!) structured her happiness project based on Benjamin Franklin's "13 Virtues" checklists in which he rated himself daily on his level of success in specific areas.  Having just done a homeschool unit on Benjamin Franklin this past Fall with the kids, this was something I had thought about, long before ever even having heard of the Happiness Project!  I like the checklist idea because, in order for me to reach my goals (the tough ones that feel like drudgery, I mean) I need accountability.  I'm really kind of terrible at holding myself accountable, a procrastinator by nature.  So, checklists sound like a good thing!

Benjamin Franklin's 13 virtues checklist

The project is based on 12 monthly themes (e.g. family life, marriage, career, eternity, etc.), which are then broken down into specific goals.  I like this structure because the idea of focusing on one particular area of life at a time seems manageable--not as overwhelming as trying to become "perfecto-person" all at once. (I tend to get just a tad over-zealous with things at times!)  In fact, when I first told Kevin about the idea of a happiness project, he chuckled and told me I would get all obsessive over it and then fizzle out at some point when I felt overwhelmed and deflated.  Humph.  But...maybe balance should be one of my monthly themes???

In addition to the monthly goals, Gretchen also came up with a list of basic governing principles for life, tidbits of wisdom, that I really liked.  Things like: "be yourself, as you actually are and not what you wish you were or think you should be" and "make failure less scary by telling yourself its fun to fail".  (Yes, I think I really need to work on that second one!)

What was neat for me, coming from a Christian perspective (the author isn't particularly religious, although she did explore the subject of "eternity" in one chapter) is that so many of the goals and bits of wisdom she identified are basic tenants of the faith.  Themes like selflessness, charity, forgiveness, self-control and patience came up time and time again.  I found it neat that these truths are so universal, and how people can find themselves seeking them, when coming from a non-religious background.  But what I really loved was seeing how they could be applied to life in very specific "everyday" ways, since sometimes (well, for me at least!) virtues can feel sort of abstract in a day-to-day sense.  I mean, at the end of the day, I don't really find myself thinking, "Hmmm, ok, so on a scale of one to ten, Erin, how was your self-control today?" (Although that sounds like a useful exercise doesn't it?!)

In no specific order, here are some other take-aways from the book that I really loved:

--Don't seek "gold stars".  When doing things for others, be content with anonymity and the joy that comes from giving, rather than seeking affirmation and recognition. 
See what I mean about basic tenants of Christianity?

--Act the way you want to feel. Happiness, to an extent, is a choice.  We can brighten our days by acting the way we wish to be
This one was actually inspired by St. Therese of Lisieux!

--Remove sources of: guilt, remorse, frustration, boredom, anger, envy and shame.  These are happiness robbers.  
Although this may seem obvious, this type of goal is something I tend to avoid as a procrastinator! So, this is an important one for me!

--This quote by Yeats: "Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing nor that, but simply growth.  We are happy when we are growing."  
Yes.  Striving brings joy!!

--Don't under-estimate what can be accomplished in even 15 minutes of time.  Spend time wisely. 
While I know this to be true, but I love the reminder that even just a short chunk of time can be really useful.  (I'm looking at you Facebook and Pinterest! Time-stealers!) This one is great because this is actually part of my goal for 2014 of being present.

--Take time for projects and record happy family memories.  
I love this because I am too often tempted to "just say no" to messy time-consuming projects that would be fun to do with the kids.  I need to say yes to the mess more often! (Also part of my "present" goal!)

--There are 3 different types of fun, some more satisfying than others.  They are: Challenging Fun--like learning a new skill, Accommodating Fun--like taking the kids to the playground and enjoying yourself in the process, and Relaxing Fun-- like watching a movie.  The last one is actually the least satisfying, but we crave it because it requires so little effort.  
Challenging fun feels like work, but brings the most joy!  Which brings me to the next point....

--Happiness doesn't always feel like happiness.  Sometimes striving to achieve feels downright horrid in the moment, but achieving the goal brings happiness in the end. 
Yes!  Like Spring Cleaning!

--We tend to take on other people's moods--both happy and sour.  So, be aware of how your mood is affecting others and vice versa.  
Create an atmosphere of joy!

There are lots and lots of other useful insights in the book, too, but I just can't possibly share them all here! 

So, I will be working on creating my own goals for the year.  I'm not quite sure how they will all look just yet.  If you're interested in doing your own project, Gretchen has a bunch of tools to help you get started on her site: here.  She also recommends joining a group--great for encouragement and added accountability.  I would LOVE to start a group, but I'm not sure if it would be possible right now.  Hmmm...I'll have to think more on that one.

So, I hope this inspired you to think about some little ways that you can increase your own happiness, even if you don't want to start an all-out "Happiness Project" right at this moment.  As my thoughts gel a bit more, I'll share more of the specifics on my own project with you!


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