Sunday, September 23, 2012

Project Managing Happiness

A while back, Gretchen Rubin offered me an advance copy of her new book, Happier at Home. I'd read her original Happiness Project, and found it interesting, so I said "sure, send me a copy."

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.


  1. Anonymous1:39 PM

    Science supports the idea that you can make yourself happier. Stumbling Upon Happiness by Dan Gilbert has a summary of a lot of the research (though I found his writing style a bit off-putting). The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwarz had some of the research in it as well.

  2. scantee8:52 AM

    I feel like I am the only person I know that's not on the happiness bandwagon. I mean, I certainly like being happy, but I think it is a poor choice for an organizing life principle. Contentment? Yes. Acceptance? Yes. But not happiness, for some reason. I think the thing that irks me about it is that there is a whole range of emotions and feelings and happiness is just one. It shouldn't crowd out the other emotions more than sadness or depression should.

    I remember reading an interview with Rubin after the publication of her first book where she talked about the panic she felt after finishing everything on her life list. The idea that more of something-even if that something is more experiences or more organization rather than more stuff-doesn't sit right with me.

    And with that, this Negative Nellie has to get back to work!

    1. I suspect the difference is in how we think about happiness. I think about it as a continuum, not an end state. So whenever I speak or write about wanting to be happy, there is an unspoken "as happy as the circumstances allow" on the end. I don't mean happy just in a hedonistic sense, and I don't mean that I never want to feel sad or other emotions. I just mean that I want to enjoy my life as much as I can. I really do aim to be happy, and make decisions with happiness in mind. That encompasses short term and long term considerations, and I won't be happy if I'm being completely selfish, etc, etc. (I have an old post about this, but don't have the time to dig it up- I'll try to do that tonight.) Perhaps I think this way because I don't believe there is anything after this life. This is what I get, so why wouldn't I want to enjoy it?

      Maybe you would describe what I mean as content, and we're just arguing semantics here. But for me, content doesn't really capture it.

  3. mom2boy10:47 AM

    I am looking for happiness on autopilot. Could be that everything in my life right now is Different! and New! and it's exhausting. I am (very) happy and content with the overall circumstances of life but I could really take some worn out, same old routine right about now. And find a lot of happiness in it.

  4. I definitely agree that most people have a basic happy/less happy temperment, but that doesn't mean we can't create more "happier" moments that break us out of negative ruts as you say. For me, trying new things is usually guaranteed to make me feel more alive and happier, even if I fall flat on my face sometimes!

    1. Anonymous2:42 PM

      For me, these days, it's all about getting enough sleep. Getting enough sleep makes me so happy. Or at least it makes me less grumpy...

    2. Oh yes, sleep has a HUGE impact on my happiness level.

      @oilandgarlic- trying new things was one of Gretchen Rubin's resolutions in one of the two books.

  5. So normally I'm one of those people who writes in and says, Yeah I'm not that into happiness and blah blah blah. But this time, Cloud, I'm going to write something different! Because the truth is, while I tend to be skeptical of the American pursuit of happiness (which I like to call Demand Happiness, for any BSG fans out there), I am actually a joyful person, the kind of person who takes ridiculous levels of delight in the most seemingly mundane things (the sudden appearance of a blue autumn sky after months of stagnant summer air; watching my boys eat their frozen yogurt sprinkled with m&ms; baking pretzel rolls, etc). I really, truly, deeply enjoy life. But the thing about happiness and making happiness and cultivating happiness is that it takes energy and patience and less stress (though happiness can also increase those things). So, like @nicoleandmaggie commented, it's pretty hard to increase your happiness level when you are sleep deprived with a baby (see, why new mothers are so stressed out), no matter how much one loves one's baby.

    I mention all these things not to make some Important Point, but because I've just come out of a really dark patch, you guys. the last year has been bleak, drained of joy, teetering on seriously depressed (in the clinical sense). And I've recently gotten myself some help, in the pharmaceutical sense, and it's like converting the world back to color after living in black and white for 365 days. And happiness means a lot more to me now that I can actually, you know, experience it. And it makes me cultivate areas of life that increase my happiness, simple things like having the mental energy to agree to let my boys help me make pancakes for dinner. We do it together; it's so much fun. They love to help. That makes me happy. But I couldn't do that before, because the structural noise inside my brain wouldn't let me. So I think we can change our baseline of happiness, but I think in some cases it can take a huge push involving some dramatic change of internal or external circumstances. But once you have a baseline, then happiness is in large part about attitude (deciding to be happy, embracing joy, looking for small moments to celebrate).

    1. I'm so glad you got help. Hooray for being able to enjoy life!

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  7. Thanks for the review. I took away some very good ideas from THP, so I'll definitely check out HAH, too.

    One of my book clubs just read THP, and half the members loved it (and were quickly made happier by following some of Rubin's tips, especially her ideas about being more silly, light & playful with kids).

    The other half of my book club did the whole sexist Attack the Successful Female (Because Deep Down Maybe I Feel Inadequate) thing that I loathe, like "How did she get a book deal?/I can't believe she made money for writing such obvious stuff./She has some real therapy issues - WTF is going on with her marriage?/Her husband and his family are super rich, so she enjoys the luxury of being able to be so self-indulgent while not having to support herself financially/ what does she know about the 99%ers?" Grrr... I hated that these women chose to go after Rubin with odd ad hominem attacks instead of critiquing her actual ideas (is it because her actual ideas might be too threatening to someone who feels she doesn't deserve to be happy?)

    As you so well put it "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." Yes. In other words, we can choose to adopt a growth mindset and take on some of the responsibility for attaining X, however we define X - "happiness," "physical fitness" or "having our financial house in order" etc. Sematics aside, how is that even a debatable point, really? Speaking only for myself, I've noticed the very act of trying to reach a personal goal ("to be happy" or whatever) tends to have the effect of making me happier in the near term.

    The haters who actually read Rubin's book (the ones I heard from in my book club) are more like "Luck and randomness play such a huge role, that you really can't do much about it except try to play the hand you're dealt." Well, I would submit that Rubin's book offers small ideas to help us play our hands the best we can, and those behaviors really and truly do lead to happiness.

    1. Anonymous6:45 PM

      I have to admit, I did *not* like the way she talked about her marriage/husband. And I felt that it got in the way of her ideas.

      My husband really enjoyed THP but I couldn't get through it. (#2 on the blog also really enjoyed the book! So don't hold it against our blog.) I think part of my problem is that by my disciplinary training I already do try to optimize my happiness (or utility, as we say). We're a hedonistic bunch, and we've read the research literature on how to best (optimally) achieve that hedonism. So the book really didn't have enough to offer me to get over the parts I didn't like. (So I put it down and picked up the latest Malcolm Gladwell at that time to read instead.)

    2. @hush, your comment reminds me of one of my favorite quotes: "The game of life is not so much in holding a good hand as playing a poor hand well." It is from H.T. Leslie. I have no idea who that is, but I love the quote.


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