Color me jaded, but when I first came across The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin it sounded kitschy to me. Nevertheless, a couple of years ago 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. Not really convinced, but I kept on keeping on.
I tried to lighten up for a time and absorb some of Rubin’s tips for chasing away the blues by picturing a new landscape, or taking in 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.)
No can do. I don’t have the patience. And Rubin’s subtitle serves as a telling abridgement— Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun. I have to say, none of things sound like fun to me.
The Happiness Project was born on a cross-town bus ride in Manhattan when Rubin was 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 when a child is not doing well in school or an aging parent is losing her memory.
Let me tell you about my own complicated happiness story. I’ll begin at the end. A few weeks ago I was driving the daily loop that encompasses the 15 miles between my children’s schools. Quite suddenly it hit me that I was happy. Not a euphoric kind of happiness, but simmering contentment instead of an acid angst 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 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 grudgingly took the medication to function. The stigma be damned! Then I gladly took the medication to have a better life. So what if I traded twenty pounds for my happiness, and yes, my sanity. I got the better end of that bargain. Underlying my decision to fill that Prozac prescription was an obligation to do everything I could to be the best for my family. 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 to tell you that there is medicine and therapy and, yes, love out there.
Gretchen Rubin’s book is a fun guide to de-cluttering or cleaning out your closets But there’s nothing wrong with you if a best-selling paperback, meant to provide organizing tips leavened with a little perspective, does not lead you to your personal nirvana. I don’t care how many copies of The Happiness Project have been sold. It’s not a guide to expansive living, the Physician’s Desk Reference or a cure-all. And by the way, I’m much happier since I “unfriended” Gretchen Rubin on Facebook.