I’m a parent of two young kids. I love my life and am grateful for my blessings, but I wouldn’t describe myself as euphorically happy all the time. I laugh and I have genuine joy, sure, but I’m often impatient with my kids and husband, and downright grumpy and frustrated with time management and not being able to think straight. And I’m overwhelmed at times by the small and big picture components of being a mom. In other words, I feel lucky but fairly anxious the other shoe will drop any minute. So… happy? That’s an elusive and slippery conversation.
That’s why I was willing to give the book The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin, a look. You’ve probably heard the name – it was a big deal a few years ago when it came out: New York Times bestseller, author appeared on Oprah, and lots of book reviews debated the right of the author to selfishly pursue a year devoted to being happy.
The premise is that author feels she should be happier, given her good marriage, two daughters, health and a satisfying career as former high-powered attorney turned bestselling author. (A real slacker!) She wants to be more satisfied, less grouchy and more grateful, so she sets out to maximize contentment by paring down her life and spiritual clutter. She researches happiness with the zeal of gold star desiring child and tenacious goal-oriented adult. She makes endless lists, charts, official sounding resolutions, checking them off one by one.
It’s easy to mock this earnestness and gag slightly at her overachieving. I was surprised at myself for even buying the book – having worked in book publishing, I am usually suspicious of these sorts of gimmicky self-help jobbies, and I sincerely doubt I’d be friends with someone who can’t figure out what she likes to do without making an Excel spreadsheet. But it’s also easy to understand and admire her tenacity in trying to make a good life better.
Ironically, I couldn’t even read one page of this damn book on our “vacation” because I had no babysitter and turns out two kids at the beach is a crazy amount of work. When we got home and went back to work, I finally had a chance to read it on the subway and at night when I wasn’t catching up on sleep from the week away. And what hit home for me the most is how money and time are the luxuries that would most make up my pursuit of happiness. If you have unlimited reserves of both and can hire someone to watch your kids while you master an intensive five day self portrait art class or even shred paper from five years of filing, you too can be happy! With the drudgery that accompanies parenting young ones, the constant cleaning and feeding and fetching, there’s honestly not much room for personal happiness, unless someone else is doing the drudgery part.
So it really bothered me that with all the details Gretchen includes in the book, down to the type of containers she purchases to keep memories of her kids’ art projects and toys, she does not once say in a clear and straightforward way that she has childcare. She has a seven-year-old and a one-year-old the year she decides to devote herself to officially pursuing happiness. And while being a better partner and parent constitute two of the 12 chapters of the book, I have to ask: Where are her kids all day while she makes scrapbooks and photo albums online, reorganizes her office and kids’ toys, and writes a novel in 30 days?
So here’s how to make your project more accessible and less enviable, at least to other parents: mention your babysitter loudly and proudly. Admit that it’s a lifesaver that she comes every day and the many nights you and your husband go to dinner parties and lectures and work events. Don’t gloss over the fact so much that money doesn’t help someone to feel happier. Go deeper there. Money probably doesn’t completely make one happy, as you do say in your chapter devoted to money, but if you have a work deadline, you certainly can’t meet it while taking your kids to the playground. You need focus to write and complete projects. And someone to take the kids to karate and fix dinner and keep that apartment organized.
A week after finishing the book, I’m away for the weekend without the kids for the first time ever. Finally, I have a minute alone without feeling guilty, and also the time to muse on happiness with a clear mind. I’m thinking back to my vacation with the kids, where I had several hyper-aware moments of “I’m happy.” My kids were belly laughing on the beach, eating sand, having pancakes for lunch. And once they were sleeping, I felt full because I knew I had worked hard to give them a fantastic time. I was so aware of their sheer joy, just being five and one, and how each new experience they were having was simply rocking their young worlds. My husband and I cracked up when we remembered what our pre-children beach vacations had been like and wondered how we possibly filled the days. And while I was tired, damn it, I was happy.
And I can say that though I had some problems with this book and wouldn’t pursue happiness in the same kind of style Gretchen did, one of her defining mantras upon completion of her project is that “The days are long, but the years are short.” I actually find this very moving, true, comforting, and spiritually in line with my exhausted contentment at the end of a full day with my kids.
So I’ll try and use that as my mantra and as a useful way to remember The Happiness Project, rather than, “I can’t wait to see my babysitter.”