In the first chapter of Gretchen Rubin’s new book, Happier at Home, she recalls a conversation about work with another mother at a five-year-old’s birthday party.
In 2009, Ms. Rubin, a mother of two girls, had written a sur prise bestseller, The Happiness Project, and for the sequel she was plotting out resolutions for the next nine months (a school-year’s worth, she explains) as the organizing principle. She mentioned a few of her thoughts to the other mother. She would make “rules” or resolutions specific to marriage, parenthood, family, the body, neighbourhood, interior design, time, possessions and the present moment.
The other mother thought the approach sounded like a lot of effort. “Do you meditate?” she asked.
Ms. Rubin hadn’t, and replied: “Well, my way is to concentrate more on changing my actions than on changing my mental state.” When the woman pointed out that “cultivating inner calm” is more important than setting out to accomplish a bunch of small tasks, Ms. Rubin retorted with one of her self-coined mantras. “I often remind myself that just because something makes me happy doesn’t mean it makes other people happy and vice versa.” She then writes that she can become “a bit belligerent” on the subject of happiness.
Who knew that happiness could become part of the competition between touchy mothers? First, it was whether you feed your kid homemade baby food – now it’s how you iron your psychic kinks?
Ms. Rubin’s first book was a year-long project to test drive age-old wisdom and new behavioural science in an effort to find true contentedness. She was the perfect candidate, the epitome of 21st-century angst over what constitutes a happy life. She had a privileged lifestyle, a Yale education, loving husband, two kids and a trendy Manhattan apartment. Nonetheless, she felt something was missing.
Her timing was unwittingly prescient, just ahead of the boom in happiness obsession that now permeates all aspects of the culture, from politics to movies, memoirs and self-help books prescribing all manner of things – forgiveness, singing, nature, meditation, touching, philanthropy, bicycling, you name it.
The premise of Ms. Rubin’s sequel is shrewdly focused on the home front, a place of great angst in the 21st century, with mothers still struggling to calibrate the perfect work-life balance and wondering if parenthood is even worth it. But unfortunately, with this book, it seems the greatest motive at play is simply this: write another bestseller.
And that’s because Ms. Rubin fails at ironic self-deprecation. She tries to make fun of her dogged approach to her work. The high-volume blogger confesses that she’s the kind of person who makes her bed in a hotel room even on the morning of check-out. But her attempts at self-mockery are ham-fisted and more than a little defensive, which don’t make her character endearing in a quirky way, just irritating.
A former lawyer, who clerked for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, she tackles happiness like a case she wants to win. And she’s not afraid to take on the opposition.
She points out the oft-quoted stance that “happiness isn’t a goal that can be directly pursued, but rather is the indirect consequence of a life well lived.” A lineup of big thinkers supports that view, she explains: George Orwell, John Stuart Mill, Aldous Huxley. Undaunted, she adds her own: “Whenever anyone raised this argument with me, I argued back. ‘How do you directly pursue happiness,’ I’d ask, ‘that’s different from pursuing it indirectly?’ ” (All italics hers.) After quoting the responses of various friends, she concludes: “Happiness is a goal and a by-product. The activities a person would undertake to pursue happiness directly are identical to the activities that would yield happiness indirectly.”
Okay, Gretch, okay! You win! You win! I didn’t know you were in a heated argument with some of the world’s greatest thinkers, but clearly you like putting yourself on the podium with them, and if it makes you happy to win the contest of logic, fine, go ahead, gloat! Now can I just turn to the parts in the book where you have something really useful to say?
That’s the conundrum, you see. Ms. Rubin is a bit like Oprah on amphetamines. And if Oprah is emotionally intelligent, Ms. Rubin is intelligently intelligent. She arrives at happiness through her head rather than through her heart. Which isn’t all bad. Her intelligence often leads to heartfelt truths. It’s just that sometimes you wish she didn’t have to get all huffy about her process.
In the chapter on parenthood, she writes about the imperative to “under-react to the problem.” As she wisely says, remaining calm over little household accidents – in her case, a bottle of her daughter’s purple nail polish spilled on the carpet – spares her “a session of pointless anger.” Her brilliant insight: “They were only as annoying as I allowed them to be.”
And I love when she quotes St. Thérèse of Lisieux, a French Carmelite nun of the late 1880s. “It isn’t enough to love; we must prove it,” the nun wrote, leading Ms. Rubin to make a resolution to make a fuss about her husband’s accomplishments, to always thank him when he does a chore, to say “I love you” more often.
Another directive from St. Thérèse: the importance of accepting gifts in the spirit in which they’re offered. Translation: If your husband buys you a bracelet, and you had asked for a ring, do not allow the first thought – in Ms. Rubin’s case, “A bracelet would interfere with my typing” – to make you a grump. Smile, and think how sweet he is for making such an effort.
There’s a paradox inherent in Ms. Rubin’s character, which in itself is oddly ironic, as it’s exactly the kind of complexity she loves to try to unravel with her incisive, legal mind. One of her many mantras is “Be Gretchen … an effort to embrace my true nature and my real passions.” Well, all that anal, workaholic, legal-parsing business is Gretchen all right.
But here’s the dilemma. Can you enjoy reading about happiness tips, even good ones, from someone you don’t really like?