Like the earlier book, Happier at Home is a quick and easy read. And like the earlier book, it made me think about what I could do to increase my happiness. I think happiness is worth working for, so I enjoy the parts of her books where she argues that happiness is an important goal, and that we can make a conscious decision to do things that will actually increase our happiness. This seems so obvious to me, but I know that a lot of people disagree.
To a certain extent, the naysayers have science on their side- there are studies that show that people have differing baseline levels of happiness, and generally happy people will stay generally happy even when bad things happen, while generally unhappy people will stay generally unhappy even when good things happen. But I also think that we can change our baseline happiness level, at least to a certain extent. I once read an article in a yoga magazine that argued that you could get in mental ruts, and meditation could help you break out of them. I thought all of the mechanisms proposed in that article were complete bunk, but it made me think about the fact that in my experience, I could get into emotional ruts. I thought about what we know about how we learn and form memories, and how the brain has mechanisms that are basically set up to strengthen the memories we use most often. And I ended up deciding that I do actually believe that we can get in unhealthy emotional ruts, and that making a consicious effort to break out of a rut would actually have a good chance of being successful, because doing so would help weaken the synapses that encode the unhelpful memories that form the "rut" while strengthening synapses that encode better memories. (If you want to know more about the mechanism I'm talking about, search for information on brain plasticity. I also want to emphasize that this assumes a healthy starting state- I'm not talking about depression, which involves changes in how the brain functions. )
So anyway, that is a long-winded way of saying that I am sympathetic to Gretchen's basic premise. As I read Happier at Home, I realized that a lot of her techniques to improve her happiness and keep herself on track are classic project management techniques- break down the larger goal (being happier) into smaller component tasks, track progress, recognize and reward intermediate milestones, etc. When I think about it, I use a lot of project management techniques in my non-work life, too. There's to do lists, of course, which are really the same thing as an action item list. But I also define projects, and break them down into smaller tasks, and track progress against those tasks- even for things as amorphous as "enjoy the summer more". (I should write a post about our "fun to do list for summer 2012" sometime- we made a pretty good showing at crossing things off that list, and it did make us enjoy our summer more.)
And that is a long-winded way of saying that I'm also sympathetic to Gretchen's approach. Given that, it isn't really surprising that I enjoyed reading the book. I picked up some concrete ideas of things to try, like the after school adventures I may try with the kids and the decorating for breakfast idea that I tried to cheer up Pumpkin. It also made me think about what little tweaks I could make to our household processes that would boost happiness, and what larger projects I might try to do the same. It has also made me think about the idea of project managing my own happiness, and I suspect that I'll get some useful ideas from that line of thought. So far, I'm thinking that maybe I should try identifying some intermediate milestones for some of my own happiness-related projects, but I need to let the idea rattle around in my brain for awhile longer before I settle on any concrete actions.
A few people have asked me whether they should read this book if they'd already read The Happiness Project. My answer is that it depends. If you disliked The Happiness Project, you'll dislike this book, too. If you liked the Happiness Project, you'll probably like this one, and the question becomes whether it has enough new insights and ideas to be worth your time. I didn't think there were any big new insights, but second book had more specific ideas that seemed directly useful to me, and the fact that it made me think about the subject again was actually pretty useful- it arrived at a hectic time, and I'd lost sight of how to keep myself feeling happy. I appreciated the reminder, and you might, too.