I started reading a new book on Friday: Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project. I had seen the website a number of times (it’s where I came across the concept of pigeons of discontent) and when I saw the book at Target a few weeks ago it really intrigued me. So I headed over to the library and checked out a copy!
(First, disregard the comparison to Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love as well as Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia — while Happiness contains a certain amount of navel-gazing, I’ve found it to be far more applicable to a wider audience than some whiny girl’s experience cooking her way through Julia Child’s masterpiece. Maybe Julie Powell should have started her own happiness project …)
I’m not all the way through it yet, but it’s helping me think more clearly about this season of loss in my life and where it’s taking me. I said throughout most of 2011 that I wanted 2012 to be a “year of jubilee” — a year in which I devoted myself to being as happy as I could possibly be, in an effort to start to reclaim some of the things my grief has taken away from me. And I really have done that — from running my first 10k, to engaging more in my yoga practice, to making an effort to control my clutter, even to baking more cakes, a lot of the things I’ve been doing throughout and since my losses have been focused on reclaiming my own happiness.
When you’re dealing with grief and loss, believing in the possibility of happiness can seem akin to believing in Santa Claus. Because there were a lot of times when I felt that way myself, it became really important for me to put little actions into place that, while they couldn’t magically make me happy again, would nevertheless make me feel marginally better. Marginally better gave way to hesitantly okay, and feeling hesitantly okay gradually brought me into a place where I felt like I was more and more capable of choosing joy in my life and actively working toward making myself happier — with the wholehearted belief that one day I might even be able to think to myself I am happy today.
I’m talking less about happiness in the spending-the-day-at-the-spa sense or the eating-chocolate-chip-cookies sense (though both are equally valid!) and more in the sense that I want to have inner reserves of peace and calm that allow my emotional equilibrium to transcend difficult circumstances. So when I say I’m in pursuit of happiness, I don’t mean that I’m just trying to fill my days with a succession of rainbows, unicorns, lollipops and puppies. True happiness — maybe it should be called Joy — as a state of mind, as a psychological phenomenon, as a spiritual discipline — is both fascinating and very important to me.
Rubin’s book isn’t a scientific report, but she does include a lot of interesting facts. Most notable to me right now is this:
According to current research, in the determination of a person’s level of happiness, genetics accounts for about 50 percent; life circumstances, such as age, gender, ethnicity, marital status, income, health, occupation, and religious affiliation, account for about 10 to 20 perfect; and the remainder is a product of how a person thinks and acts.
(Again, as it’s not a scientific report there’s no footnote telling me which research has found this, but she includes a long bibliography at the end of the book that I hope to be able to delve into.) But did you hear that? 30-40% of a person’s happiness is dependent on how that person thinks and acts — more so than their life circumstances. I may not be able to change the fact that my mother died, or that I lost two precious babies, and I certainly can’t change the effect those losses have had on my life, but I do have a greater amount of control over my own happiness than I might think possible.
So one thing I have been focusing on in a peripheral way over the last several months, and what I hope to devote greater energy to in the coming year, is how to be happy. So far my own observations have taught me that (contrary to what younger Amy believed) happiness isn’t achieved through the acquisition of yet more material possessions, or “treating” myself to whatever it is I think I deserve at the moment, or by being self-indulgent. Instead, I’ve noticed a greater sense of inner calm when I come home to a clean(er) house, get up on time and don’t have to rush, or fight the urge to procrastinate on those peskier chores at work. It’s knowing that I need to practice yoga regularly, eat healthy, whole foods, and get enough sleep. Those are the things that are helping me to start this adventure off on the right foot — not yet another Earl Grey tea latte from Starbucks, no matter how much I might think I deserve the treat. (I can get the Earl Grey tea latte, but I know it’s not going to fill any sort of spiritual void.)
So now that we are six weeks into 2012 (and I am eight weeks away from having a baby), I want to see where my study of happiness will take me. I have high hopes to end 2012 with a more organized, peaceful, mindful and self-aware life — baby and all.