For the past year I've been following the progression of The Happiness Project, founded two years ago by recovering lawyer and happiness aficionado Gretchen Rubin. Color me jaded, but when I first came across The Happiness Project, it sounded kitschy to me. But I was curious enough to follow Rubin's Facebook postings, most of which exhorted me to work on my happiness every day. A simple attitude adjustment, like telling yourself that you were happy, was the first step towards true contentment.
After reading the weekly updates, I lightened up a bit and absorbed some of Rubin's Wednesday tips for chasing away the blues by picturing a new landscape, or the following advice for combating boredom:
Take the perspective of a journalist or scientist. Really study what's around you. What are people wearing, what do the interiors of buildings look like, what noises do you hear? If you bring your analytical powers to bear, you can make almost anything interesting. (Perhaps this is a key to the success of some modern art.)
Rubin's new book is aptly titled "The Happiness Project," and it comes with a subtitle that serves as a useful summary: "Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun." Rubin says that her happiness project was born on a cross-town bus ride in Manhattan during which she was passing the time in a funk. Then it hit her: She was going through the motions of living rather than actually living. It seems like a deceptively simple epiphany. But step back, take a deep breath, turn off the internal chatter running through your brain, and take in your surroundings. Fully live in the moment. Not so easy. While that may be a useful exercise to nudge you toward happiness, it's also a great example of self-aware living.
Rubin lists 10 tips to boost your happiness. I took particular notice of Tip No. 3:
Fake it till you feel it. Feelings follow actions. If I'm feeling low, I deliberately act cheery, and I find myself actually feeling happier. If I'm angry at someone, I do something thoughtful for her, and my feelings toward her soften. This strategy is uncannily effective.
I don't doubt it - my rabbi is fond of saying: "Do the deed and the feelings will follow." The concept is along the lines of "practice makes perfect," with a spiritual payoff at the end. But I'm still dubious about doing something thoughtful right away for someone who has made me mad. You can go to Rubin's Web site to read the other nine tips for being happier: www.happiness
project.com. But stay with me for another moment or two, and I'll tell you about my own complicated happiness story. I'll begin at the end. A few weeks ago I was driving my daily loop encompassing West Roxbury and Waltham. Quite suddenly it hit me that I was happy. Not a euphoric kind of happiness, but a contentment dwelling in the proverbial pit in my stomach.
Not so remarkable until I tell you what happened to me a decade ago. Yes, I have two great kids. I have a loving husband whom I in turn adore. There is a mortgage on our lovely home, a Volvo in our driveway. And then the life that I carefully built with Ken came apart for no apparent reason. In layperson's parlance, I had a nervous breakdown. My depression and panic were off the charts. I'd been through this many times, but over the years I'd always managed to climb out of the pit.
This time it was different. The psychological pain wasn't going away. I began going to weekly psychiatric appointments with Dr. G. For two months I debated, mostly with myself during those sessions, about signing on for an anti-depressant. One day Dr. G asked me if I would take insulin if I had diabetes. When I said that I would, he followed up with another question. Would I take medication to correct a serotonin imbalance? And so my personal happiness project began.
At first I took the medication to function. Then I took the medication to have a better life. The stigma be damned! Underlying my decision was an obligation to be my best for Anna, Adam and Ken. Anti-depressants are not a cure-all, but in conjunction with counseling they have worked wonders for me. That said; please don't try this at home. Self-medication is dangerous and sometimes deadly.
I share my story to tell you that depression and anxiety can happen to anyone at any time. I share my story to tell you that working out at the gym or reading up on tips to boost your happiness can't wholly address serious medical conditions like depression and panic disorder. Mostly, I've decided to go public in 2010 to tell you that there is medicine and therapy and, yes, love out there. Buy Gretchen Rubin's book - it's a fun, thought-provoking guide on expansive living.
But it is not the Physician's Desk Reference.