Starting in September (the new January), author, wife and mother Gretchen Rubin dedicated an entire school year to making her home a place of greater simplicity, comfort and love. As she did in her last book, “The Happiness Project,” Rubin worked through general theories of happiness — but this time around she delved deeper into factors that matter at home, such as possessions, marriage, time and parenthood. Here is an excerpt from Rubin’s new book, “Happier at Home: Kiss More, Jump More, Abandon a Project, Read Samuel Johnson, and My Other Experiments in the Practice of Everyday Life”:
One late-summer Sunday evening, as I was unloading the dishwasher, I felt overwhelmed by a familiar but surprising emotion: I was hit by an intense wave of homesickness. Homesick — why? Perhaps the hint of some scent, or the quality of the light, had triggered a long-forgotten memory. Homesick — for what? I didn’t know. Yet even though I stood in my own kitchen, with my family in the next room, where Jamie watched golf on television while Eliza and Eleanor played Restaurant, suddenly I missed them terribly.
I looked around me, at the blue stove, the wooden knife rack, the broken toaster, the view from the window, all so familiar that usually I forgot to notice them.
“May I offer you some dessert this evening?” I could hear Eleanor asking in her best waitress voice.
“We have apple, blueberry, and pumpkin pie.” I glanced into the next room, where I could see the tops of the girls’ heads; as usual, they were both wearing their straight brown hair in long, messy ponytails, and Eleanor sported a crooked waitress cap.
“Blueberry, thank you,” Eliza answered primly.
“What about me?” Jamie asked. “Isn’t the waitress going to take my order?”
“No, Daddy! You’re not in the game!”
What was this yearning I felt? I was homesick, I realized, with a prospective nostalgia for now and here: when Jamie and I live with our two girls under our roof, with our own parents strong and busy, with two little nephews just learning to talk and play, everyone healthy despite a few longstanding, nagging medical concerns, and no disaster looming except the woes of sixth grade.
A line from the British literary giant Samuel Johnson floated through my mind. (My life differs in practically every way from that of Dr. Johnson, the 18th-century, dictionary-writing, eccentric genius, yet whenever I read Johnson, I understand myself better.) Johnson wrote: “To be happy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition, the end to which every enterprise and labour tends.”
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That’s true, I reflected, pausing for a moment to think, before starting again, absentmindedly, to put away the dishes. Johnson was right; home was at the center of my life — for good and for ill. But what was “home,” anyway? What did I want from my home?
Home is where I walk through the door without ringing the bell; where I take a handful of coins from the change bowl without asking; where I eat a tuna fish sandwich without misgivings about the ingredients; where I rifle through the mail. At the heart of this home is my family; where my family is, is home. If I lived by myself, home would be the place peopled with reminders of everyone I loved.
My home is a place of unconditional belonging, which is part of its pleasure, part of its pain — as Robert Frost wrote, home is “Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.” At home, I feel a greater sense of safety and acceptance, and also of responsibility and obligation. With friends, my hospitality is voluntary, but my family never needs an invitation.
Although the people in it are its most important element, home is also a place of return, the physical hub of my schedule — and of my imagination. In my mind, the entire globe revolves around a single spot, where a bright red “You Are Here” arrow hovers undetected above our roof. When Jamie and I moved from our old apartment just 10 blocks south to where we live now, I remember how all of New York City seemed to wobble and reorient itself, just slightly, to put us back at the very center.
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Behind our unremarkable front door waits the little world of our own making, a place of safety, exploration, comfort, and love. The dry scent of the coat closet, the faint clankings from the service elevator, the sight of our library books lined up by the front door, the flavor of the toothpaste we all share — this is my foundation.
“Why have I never thought about home before?” I asked myself. Suddenly the idea of home exploded in my mind. “Home!” I exulted as I put the last mug on the shelf, “I’ll start another happiness project, and this time I’ll focus on home!” My mind began to race with ideas ...
In my first project, I’d worked out many general theories of happiness; for this project, I would build on what I’d learned. I foresaw an ambitious scheme covering all the elements that mattered for home, such as relationships, possessions, time, body, neighborhood.
And I’d definitely replace our dud toaster.
I closed the dishwasher, grabbed a handy Hello Kitty notepad and a pen, and sat down to take notes on which resolutions to undertake.
This September marked two particular milestones for our family. Five-year-old Eleanor would start kindergarten, and the era of finger-painting, strollers, and noon dismissal would end forever. At the same time, 11-year-old Eliza would enter sixth grade, the year that often marks the beginning of teenage drama; her childhood was drawing to a close. It seemed a good time to reevaluate my life.
For the nine months of the school year, from September through May, I vowed, I’d strive to make home more homey. First, I’d address some basic tasks: I should make sure that we had some working flashlights and a fire extinguisher under the kitchen sink, and it was probably time to spring for a new toilet plunger. Beyond those rudimentary steps, however, what should I do?
In perhaps the most famous first line of any novel, Leo Tolstoy wrote, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Whether or not this sweeping statement is true, it suggests that happy families share certain elements. How could I cultivate these elements in my own family, in my own home? That was my central question.
One important lesson from my first happiness project was to recognize how happy I already am. As life goes wheeling along, I find it too easy to take my everyday happiness for granted, and to forget what really matters. I’ve long been haunted by a remark by the writer Colette: “What a wonderful life I’ve had! I only wish I’d realized it sooner.” I didn’t want to look back, at the end of my life or after some great catastrophe, and think, “Then we were so happy, if only we’d realized it.” I had everything that I could wish for; I wanted to make my home happier by appreciating how much happiness was already there.
As I thought about this new happiness project, I realized that unless I restricted my innovations to my own bedroom closet, Jamie, Eliza, and Eleanor would be swept along with me. My home was their home, and whatever I did would affect them deeply. But although I cared immensely about their happiness, I felt certain that I should focus on resolutions that I would follow. While I might enjoy giving them assignments to make them (and also me) happier, in the end, I could change no one but myself. Fortunately, I thought, a Gretchen-centered approach to a happier home would surely make Jamie, Eliza, and Eleanor happier, too.
But as ideas flooded my mind, I warned myself not to pursue any resolutions that would directly conflict with their happiness. My desire for more affectionate gestures shouldn’t become a focus of nagging, and my clutter-clearing zeal couldn’t justify a sneak purge of Eliza’s dusty stuffed animals or Jamie’s teetering bedside book stack. A guiding principle for all who undertake a happiness project is “First, do no harm.” Along those same lines, I must guard against becoming the happiness-project version of Charles Dickens’s Mrs. Jellyby: pursuing happiness at the expense of my happiness.
As I scribbled notes at top speed, Jamie walked into the kitchen and headed straight for the chocolate cake he’d baked with the girls that afternoon.
“Listen,” I said excitedly. I waved the paper in front of him as he cut himself a generous piece. “I just had the greatest idea! I’m going to do another happiness project!”
“Another one?” he asked.
“Yes! I got the idea from Dr. Johnson. He wrote, ‘To be happy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition.’ I think that’s true, don’t you?”
“Sure,” he smiled. “Everyone wants to be happy at home. But aren’t you already happy at home?”
“Yes, of course,” I said, “but I could be happier.”
“How could you be happier? You already have the perfect husband.” “That’s right!” I shot him a fond look. “Still, I could be happier. We could all be happier!”
“The thing is,” he said, more seriously, and with a mouth full of cake, “you’ve already done all that happiness stuff.” He waved his fork around the room. “You know, all those resolutions.”
“The first happiness project worked so well. I want to do another one!”
“Oh. Okay.” Jamie retreated to the television with his plate. I didn’t mind his lack of curiosity. After all, I was doing this happiness project for myself, and it was bound to make him happier, too. I bent over my paper once more.Story: Pursuing happiness, one concrete goal at a time
Over the next several weeks, as I planned my project, I kept confronting many of the paradoxes of happiness that I’d learned during my earlier research:
Accept myself, and expect more of myself.
Give myself limits to give myself freedom.
Make people happier by acknowledging that they’re not feeling happy.
Plan ahead to be spontaneous; only with careful preparation do I feel carefree.
Accomplish more by working less.
Happiness doesn’t always make me feel happy.
Flawed can be more perfect than perfection.
It’s very hard to make things easier.
My material desires have a spiritual aspect.
Hell is other people. Heaven is other people.
Certainly I had paradoxical wishes for my home. Frank Lloyd Wright wrote, “A true home is the finest ideal of man,” and the challenge lay in that word “true.” What would be true for me? My home should calm me and energize me. It should be a comforting, quiet refuge and a place of excitement and possibility. It should call to my mind the past, the present, and the future. It should be a snuggery of privacy and reflection, but also a gathering place that strengthened my engagement with other people. By making me feel safe, it should embolden me to take risks. I wanted a feeling of home so strong that no matter where I went, I would take that feeling with me; at the same time, I wanted to find adventure without leaving my apartment. My home should suit me, and also suit Jamie, Eliza, and Eleanor. But as I considered this list, I saw that these weren’t, in fact, contradictory desires. My home could be both wading pool and diving board.
I knew that with my home, as with everything that touched my happiness, I could build a happy life only on the foundation of my own nature. It had been a huge relief to me when — quite recently — I’d finally realized that the style of my apartment (and my clothes and my music) didn’t have to reflect the “true” me. Messages like “Your home is a direct representation of your soul!” and “Every choice shows the world the real you!” paralyzed me. What did my choice of throw pillows reflect about my character? Was I the kind of person who would paint a room purple? What was my real taste? I had no idea. My anxiety to do things “right” sometimes made me forget what really mattered to me.
Finally, I’d realized that our apartment didn’t have to reveal any deep truths. I expressed myself in other ways; it was enough that my apartment was a pleasant, comfortable place to live (and had miles of bookshelves). Some people — like my mother — get tremendous creative satisfaction from shaping the look of their homes, but I don’t; I find it exhausting. In this area, I would be authentically inauthentic. In fact, studies suggest, we pay a price for “authenticity.” In a world so full of choices, when we choose deliberately among alternatives, we expend mental energy that then can’t be used for other tasks. ... The key, as always, is mindfully to choose what’s right for me — and my family.
For me, being happier at home wouldn’t be a matter of hanging more pictures or replacing that kitchen table I’d never liked. Mindfulness and self-knowledge would be more important than errands and expense. I wanted to put into practice William Morris’s precept: “The true secret of happiness lies in the taking a genuine interest in all the details of daily life.” Starting in September (September is the other January), I was ready to make a school year’s worth of resolutions, but what nine areas should I tackle?
Ancient philosophers and contemporary scientists agree that a key — likely the key — to happiness is having strong ties to other people, and my relationships with Jamie, Eliza, Eleanor, and my extended family stood at the center of my home. I resolved to address “Marriage,” “Parenthood,” and “Family.”
A sense of personal control is a very important element to happiness; for instance, it’s a much better predictor of happiness than income. At home, my sense of control over my stuff played a huge role in my happiness, as did a feeling of control over my time, so I added “Possessions” and “Time.”
My happiness depended a great deal on my inner attitudes, so I added “Interior Design” (the inward reflection, rather than shelter-magazine, brand of interior design). At the same time, I knew that my physical experience influenced my emotional experience, so I added “Body.” What else? The place of my home in the world was important, so I added “Neighborhood.”
For the very last month of the school year, I wanted to concentrate on my Third Splendid Truth: “The days are long, but the years are short.” This happiness truth has a particular poignancy in my family life, because my daughters’ childhoods were slipping by so quickly. I wanted to remember “Now.”
During the time that I was plotting my resolutions for the next nine months, I took Eleanor to a 5-year-old’s birthday party. While the children chased around, and I tried to resist dipping into the bowl of chocolate-covered pretzels, another mother and I struck up a conversation about our work. With one eye on Eleanor, who was showing more courage than skill on the balance beam, I mentioned a few of my planned resolutions. My new acquaintance said doubtfully, “You make happiness sound like a lot of effort. I study Buddhism, and meditation has changed my life. Do you meditate?”
I was a bit touchy about my failure to try meditation. Did the fact that I couldn’t bring myself to try it even once mean that I was utterly soulless? “Umm, actually, no,” I admitted.
“You should — it’s essential. I go crazy if I don’t meditate for at least 30 minutes each day.”
Uncertain as to whether this declaration was the sign of a well-regulated mind or just the opposite, I replied, “Well, my way is to concentrate more on changing my actions than on changing my mental state.”
“I think you’ll find that cultivating inner calm is much more important than worrying about accomplishing a lot of little tasks. You really must meditate if you’re going to say anything about happiness.”
“Hmm,” I answered, trying to sound noncommittal. Then, perhaps too pointedly, I remarked, “I often remind myself that just because something makes me happy doesn’t mean it makes other people happy, and vice versa.” (The fact is, I can become a bit belligerent on the subject of happiness.) Then, happily, it was time to head to the pizza table.
One afternoon at the end of August, in a flash of insight, I managed to articulate a question that had long haunted me, just out of reach of my conscious mind. “Am I ready?” Years before, I’d written a law-journal piece that argued that the law of torts is meant to comfort us in the face of the knowledge that “Something is going to happen”; suddenly, I grasped that my happiness projects were a different sort of attempt to master fate, to ensure that I was disciplined, organized, and well-rested, with my cell phone fully charged and medicine cabinet fully stocked, in order to meet some dreadful, nameless catastrophe. Something is going to happen. Am I ready?Story: Q&A: Andrew Madoff's fiancee on preparing for disasters
Whenever calamity might strike — as surely it would — I wanted to be prepared, and my new happiness project would help. I thought eagerly of the work I’d do to cull my possessions, to brace my relationships, to husband my time more wisely, and to behave myself better. The weather set a perfect mood as I walked through the neighborhood with my long list of back-to-school errands; the late summer air hung rich with fresh beginnings and new possibilities, with a cooler edge that hinted that winter was coming. There was no time to waste.
Vacation was over, and the end was the beginning. September was here.
Reprinted from “Happier at Home.” Copyright © 2012 by Gretchen Rubin. Published by Crown Archetype, a division of Random House, Inc.
© 2012 MSNBC Interactive