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Need a New Year's Book? Try ‘The Happiness Project’

A busy mom finds a message for 2012 at her book club.

At my last book club meeting we harried holiday mamas ordered a pitcher of margaritas and I think it was gone before the waiter had stopped laying down the glasses. The book was The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin, and it spurred a lovely, deep conversation that ended with each of us going around making New Year’s resolutions based on the book’s inspirations.

For a group that sometimes spends more time talking about our kids’ sleep schedules than the book we’ve just read, I was really impressed. It turns out the The Happiness Project was the perfect read for the New Year because Rubin's research and easy reporting focused us in believable ways on what changes can increase our own happiness this coming year.

In the book, and now in her blog, Rubin writes about her endeavor to take what she’s researched, believed, and heard in popular culture about happiness and test it out over a yearlong search to be more happy. She draws on a wide array of influences, including Plutarch, Samuel Johnson, Benjamin Franklin, St. Thérèse, the Dalai Lama, Oprah, Martin Seligman — and she tests them all.

What she comes up with are two header lists of rules to live by: The Twelve Personal Commandments, and Four Splendid Truths. These rules can be divided into three categories, those which deal with acceptance of self and others, those which insist we do what we ought to and without delay (think home organization and polite behavior), and those which reveal that happiness is about boosting our ability to give and receive love.

We found some points more helpful than others. Many of our resolutions stemmed from just one of her Four Splendid Truths: “The days are long but the years are short” (click on the link for a lovely one minute video on this).

The first person to bring up this truism was Claire Falcone, a new mom with a spunky little guy just under the age of 1. Having just gone through that rough first year of your eldest child’s life, when the norm seems to be holding on for dear life and forgetting to appreciate much because you’re so darned tired/frustrated/concerned, this quote really resonated with Claire.

Her good friend Jamie Gonzalez agreed, and brought us all near to tears by recalling that common look on the faces of parents with grown kids when they tell you it goes by so fast. Too often, those of us with small kids disregard this sentiment because that particular day or week with the little ones has seemed so very long. “But,” Jamie said, “this book reminded me that instead of trying to just get through the day, the time is now to be enjoying our kids and our life.”

I, myself, just finished breast-feeding my youngest last summer and now miss it terribly, and my eldest hardly ever wants hugs and kisses anymore and she’s only 5! I can only imagine what I’ll do when neither of them wants to even acknowledge me in public anymore. What do we miss out on when we focus on difficulties and what still needs to get done, rather than remembering how much we’ll miss these special days when they’re gone? This isn’t about feeling guilty for not appreciating, just recognizing that doing so may result in making us more happy.

Debbie Elliot really took this one to heart, saying she understood Rubin’s point to mean, “We should live in the moment rather than live in romanticized past or future moments. Building memories is great, but savoring that present moment is better: the kisses, the snuggles, the I love yous (sic)...” She recalled her tough week at the pediatrician with her newborn, and said that, “All our schedules have been thrown off....grrrr. But I’m happy! Truly, because I think that way!”

Another really valuable idea for us mamas came from Rubin’s commandment to “Be Gretchen” — to be herself and accept who she is so that she can give back what she has to offer this world as much as possible. This means, as Claire said, “Accept yourself for who you are and what your particular likes and dislikes are, because they will differ from someone else's. Every person will have their own unique path toward happiness and it is important to identify what in each of us will help us to find our own way.”

Many of us took this to heart. We spoke about resolutions to not feel like we should be doing something just because it works for others, like posting on Facebook, or letting our kids cry themselves back to sleep to avoid what others say will create bad habits. I see this one as sort of an ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ kind of rule.

Also, if you accept these things about yourself, you must necessarily extend the same understanding to those around you. From this several of us, myself included, saw a way to resolve to be more patient with our partners and children — often one of the toughest resolutions to keep when your kids are so small and demand so much.

I left our bookclub meeting with a light heart that night, and not just because of the tequilla. I am grateful to Gretchen Rubin for inciting such a meaningful discussion, a way for us friends to really lift one another up in support of having a better life. Several of us have now signed up for her blog and will try to continue what we’ve learned from her adventure. For us, Gretchen being Gretchen has benefited us all, and that, she would argue, is exactly the point.

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