In the spirit of her blockbuster #1 New York Times bestseller The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin embarks on a new project to make home a happier place.
One Sunday afternoon, as she unloaded the dishwasher, Gretchen Rubin felt hit by a wave of homesickness. Homesick—why? She was standing right in her own kitchen. She felt homesick, she realized, with love for home itself. “Of all the elements of a happy life,” she thought, “my home is the most important.” In a flash, she decided to undertake a new happiness project, and this time, to focus on home.
And what did she want from her home? A place that calmed her, and energized her. A place that, by making her feel safe, would free her to take risks. Also, while Rubin wanted to be happier at home, she wanted to appreciate how much happiness was there already.
So, starting in September (the new January), Rubin dedicated a school year—September through May—to making her home a place of greater simplicity, comfort, and love.
In The Happiness Project, she worked out general theories of happiness. Here she goes deeper on factors that matter for home, such as possessions, marriage, time, and parenthood. How can she control the cubicle in her pocket? How might she spotlight her family’s treasured possessions? And it really was time to replace that dud toaster.
Each month, Rubin tackles a different theme as she experiments with concrete, manageable resolutions—and this time, she coaxes her family to try some resolutions, as well.
With her signature blend of memoir, science, philosophy, and experimentation, Rubin’s passion for her subject jumps off the page, and reading just a few chapters of this book will inspire readers to find more happiness in their own lives.
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About the Author
GRETCHEN RUBIN is the author of several books, including the blockbuster #1 New York Times bestseller, The Happiness Project. Rubin started her career in law, and she was clerking for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor when she realized that really wanted to be a writer. Raised in Kansas City, she lives in New York City with her husband and two daughters.
Read an Excerpt
Find a True Simplicity
We need to project ourselves into the things around us. My self is not confined to my body. It extends into all the things I have made and all the things around me. Without these things, I would not be myself.
—Carl Jung, C. G. Jung Speaking
Once the season of the harvest, now the season of la rentrée, September has always been a milestone month for me, and this September had particular significance: After the first week of school, Eliza walked to school alone. Although she has a safe walk of just nine blocks, we both were nervous the first time she left by herself, but after that morning, she was thrilled with her new independence. The change was bittersweet for me, because I would miss our time together.
Oh well, I comforted myself, Eleanor was just starting kindergarten; I still had many years of morning walks ahead of me. Last May, at the end of nursery school, Eleanor had seemed so big, but in her new school, she was little all over again. As I led her into her classroom on that first morning, I loved seeing the construction-paper decorations, the block area and the dress-up clothes, the rows of carefully labeled cubbies. Already, I felt deeply sentimental.
When I considered how to be happier at home, I thought first of Eliza, Eleanor, and Jamie. The contents of my home and its architecture mattered much less than its occupants. But while home was the people in it, it was also the physical space and the objects that surrounded me there. I decided to start my happiness project with the theme of “Possessions,” not because I thought possessions were the most important aspect of my home—they weren’t—but because I knew that in many cases, my possessions blocked my view and weighed me down. Before I wrestled with deeper challenges that struck closer to my heart—in the months devoted to “Marriage,” “Parenthood,” and “Family”—I wanted to feel more in control of stuff.
My theme of “Possessions,” however, wouldn’t extend to furniture, wallpaper, bathroom tile, or any permanent aspect of the apartment. Although I knew that many people might be eager to address the home-decor aspect of home, I’d never been interested in interior design—window treatments, kitchen countertops, or anything else—that is, until I read the haunting, evocative book A Pattern Language. In it, visionary architect Christopher Alexander and his team identify 253 “patterns” that repeat through the architecture that people find most pleasing. As I read about these patterns, I began to fantasize for the first time about living in a dream house, one that incorporated patterns such as “Sleeping to the East,” “Staircase as a Stage,” “Garden Growing Wild,” “The Fire,” and “Private Terrace on the Street.” I wanted them all. But although Alexander’s grand system of archetypes enthralled me, our current apartment either had elements such as “Window Place” or “Sunny Counter,” or, in most cases, it didn’t. For this month of Possessions, I would limit myself to the movable objects inside our apartment.
Within the larger subject of happiness, the proper relationship of possessions to happiness is hotly debated. People often argue that possessions don’t—or shouldn’t—matter much to happiness, but I think they do.
Some research suggests that spending money on an experience brings more happiness than buying a possession, but the line between possessions and experiences isn’t always simple to draw. The latest pair of skis is tied to the fun of skiing, and a fashionable dress adds to the fun of meeting friends. A camera is a possession that helps keep happy memories vivid—a big happiness booster. A dog is a possession, an experience, a relationship. Also, many wonderful experiences require, or are enhanced by, possessions. Camping is easier with a great tent. Throwing a Halloween party is more fun with wonderful decorations. Choosing postcards enhances the pleasures of traveling. Part of the fun of fly-fishing is picking out the equipment. Also, for many people, shopping itself is an enjoyable experience; acquisition of possessions is part of the fun, but not all of the fun.
People’s desire for possessions can change over time. A friend told me, “For years, I loved the feeling that I could pack up my apartment in an afternoon, load it into my car, and drive away.”
“Like that character in the movie Sex, Lies, and Videotape, who said, ‘I just like having the one key,’ ” I said.
“Exactly! I felt so free. I could do anything, go anywhere.”
“Do you still feel that way?”
“No,” he said. “Over time, I’ve started to want to have more things. I’m still single, so I can live any way I want, but now I want to be settled someplace, with my things around me.”
We often deny the importance of possessions, or feel embarrassed by our enthusiasm for them, but the desire to possess has roots very deep in human nature. “Although there are a few societies in which notions of ownership are absent or downplayed,” observe researchers Gail Steketee and Randy Frost in Stuff, “in most cultures the interaction between people and their things is a central aspect of life.”
Of course, the practice of denying the importance of possessions is also ancient, and many cultures extol the principle of nonattachment and the relinquishment of worldly goods. It’s certainly true that possessions, or the desire for possessions, can undermine happiness, and that some people are happier when they own very little. I once had a long conversation with a twenty-three-year-old guy who tried to convince me how happy I’d be if only I would downsize to one backpack of stuff. “I can’t tell you how much more serene I feel, now that I’ve gotten rid of practically everything,” he said earnestly. “It’s the answer.”
“For you,” I said, with a laugh. “But it’s not the answer for everyone.”
For me, I knew, possessions had a role to play. In fact, one of my goals for the month was to glean more happiness from my possessions.
The fact is, attachment brings happiness, and attachment brings unhappiness. Love—for people, for possessions, for a place, for an animal, for a house, for anything—exposes us to the pain of loss. It’s inescapable. We can mitigate that pain by moderating or even eliminating attachment, but while something is gained, something is also relinquished. I wanted to love my possessions, and yet not be mastered by them.
In the persistent debate over the proper role of possessions and spending, I often heard the argument “It’s awful; people are so materialistic. They think that money and buying things can make them happy, but they can’t.”
This statement contains more than one idea. The first idea is that “Money can’t buy happiness.” True, money can’t buy happiness, but spent wisely, it can buy things that contribute mightily to a happy life. People’s most pressing worries include financial anxiety, health concerns, job insecurity, and having to do tiring and boring chores, and money can help to relieve these problems. Money can help us stay close to other people, which is perhaps the key to happiness. It can help us support causes we believe in. It can help us pursue activities that bring us happiness, whether raising children, planting a flower garden, or planning a vacation.
The second idea is that people (not us or our friends, of course, but other people) are too “materialistic,” that is, they place too much importance on owning things and showing them off. True, people who are materialistic tend to have unrealistically high expectations of the power of material things, and they seek to define themselves, or raise their status, or make themselves happier through possessions. Studies show that highly materialistic people are less happy, though which is the cause and which is the consequence isn’t clear.
However, in some situations, behavior that might outwardly seem “materialistic” has a nonmaterialistic cause. Conspicuous consumption doesn’t explain every flashy purchase. For instance, I have a friend who’s always the first to buy the latest gizmo—not to show that he can afford it, but to feed his fascination with technology. Clothes are a puzzle. Some people appreciate beautiful clothes for their own sake; it’s not all about making a display for other people, though that’s part of it, too. Virginia Woolf noted in her diary: “But I must remember to write about my clothes next time I have an impulse to write. My love of clothes interests me profoundly; only it is not love; and what it is I must discover.” Is this love purely “materialistic”?
For better or worse, buying things (or photographing them, cataloging them, or writing reviews about them) is a way to engage with the world. When we’re interested in something, we often express that interest by researching, shopping, buying, and collecting. People who love art go to museums, but when they can afford it, they usually want to buy art, too. People who love to cook enjoy buying kitchen tools and exotic ingredients. The latest sports equipment probably isn’t much different from what’s already in the closet. We crave to buy and possess the things we love, even when it’s not necessary. I’m interested in reading The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin only every so often, and my neighborhood library has two copies, yet I want my own copy. When we possess things, we often want to show and share them with other people. Is that necessarily “materialistic” behavior?
Many of the most precious possessions are valuable not because of their cost or prestige, but because of the meanings they contain; modest trinkets, homemade objects, worn books, old photographs, whimsical collections. (After someone’s death, how strange to see the value drain away from his or her possessions; useful household objects such as clothes, or dish towels, or personal papers become little more than trash.)
Because we often want to deny the importance of possessions, and because we don’t want to seem materialistic, we often don’t spend enough time and attention thinking about how possessions could boost happiness—or at least I didn’t. My possessions had a powerful influence over the atmosphere of my home, and they contributed to, and reflected, my sense of identity.
Was it possible to be happy with very few possessions? Yes. Were some people happier when they owned almost nothing? Yes. But for most people, including me, possessions, wisely chosen, could be a boon to happiness.
Possessions have a role to play in happiness, yet it seemed as though every time I visited a bookstore, turned on the TV, or picked up a newspaper or magazine, I heard the message “You’ll be happier with less!” Whenever I fell into conversation with people about the subject of happiness at home, I often heard the response, “Oh, I need to simplify.”
Some of the great minds in history urge us toward simplicity. Thoreau admonished, “Our life is frittered away by detail. . . . Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!” This longing for simplicity is so powerful and complex that it needs its own term, much like nostalgie de la boue (yearning for the mud) or wabi sabi (the beauty of the imperfect and impermanent). When I asked on my blog if anyone knew a term to capture this idea, one reader coined the wonderful word “Waldenlust.” This longing takes several forms: fantasies of the freedom that dispossession would bring; nostalgia for earlier, supposedly simpler times; and reverence for the primitive, which is assumed to be more authentic and closer to nature.
I’ve often felt a yearning to escape from the ties of ownership. I’ve wanted to dump the entire contents of a chest of drawers into the trash rather than endure the headache of sorting the good from the bad. I often choose not to buy something useful or beautiful, because I don’t want the responsibility of another possession. Years ago, walking through a convenience store parking lot in some small, nameless California town, I had a sudden vision of abandoning everything, my possessions, relationships, ambition, to disappear, unencumbered. What care I for my goose-feather bed?—I’m away with the raggle-taggle gypsies-o. Sometimes, too, in an eerie, dark reversal, I love something so much that I feel the urge to destroy it, to be free from that attachment and the fear of loss. (I was so puzzled by this impulse that I wrote a book about it, Profane Waste.)
One friend had a particularly acute case of Waldenlust. He was headed to his parents’ house to go through the twenty boxes he’d stored there. “It’s terrible to say, but I really wish there’d be a fire or a flood,” he said ruefully. “Then I’d be done. I hate the thought of dealing with all that stuff.”
“Why are you doing it?”
“My parents are really annoyed. I promised I’d leave the boxes there just temporarily, but they’ve been there a year now.”
“If you haven’t needed anything for a year, maybe nothing’s important,” I said. “If you wish everything would get destroyed in a fire, maybe you could throw the boxes away, without going through them.”
“No, I couldn’t do that,” he shook his head. “I can’t just throw it all away, even if I don’t want it.”
I nodded. I understood the demands of those dusty cardboard boxes. Even though they sat neglected and unwanted, somehow they held pieces of—himself? the past?—that couldn’t be discarded recklessly.
In the past few years, I’d made great headway in conquering my own clutter, but I still wasn’t free from it. The press of superfluous possessions made me feel unsettled and harried, and the demands required by acquisition, use, maintenance, storage, and even relinquishment ate up my energy and time.
However, although I wanted to simplify, I also feared that I was too inclined to simplify. Of course, the virtues of simplicity lay far deeper than mere elimination, yet I saw a danger in my craving; I didn’t want to be tempted to cut away too much.
The first principle of my happiness project was to “Be Gretchen.” One important way to “Be Gretchen” was not to assume that virtues that others strive to cultivate are the ones that I should strive for. Others strive to save; I push myself to spend out. Others try to work more; I try to play more. Others strive for simplicity; I fight the simplifying impulse, because if anything, I cultivate too much simplicity—not a disciplined, thoughtful simplicity, but one created by indifference and neglect.
There’s a lassitude deep in my soul; I always have to fight my urge to do nothing. If I didn’t have to consider Jamie and my daughters, if I didn’t have my mother to coach me along, I’d be living in a studio with bare walls, crooked blinds, and a futon on the floor, forever. For some, that simplicity would seem attractive and perhaps even admirable, but not to me. In my case, it would be the simplicity of evasion and apathy, not the simplicity of beautiful emptiness or voluntary poverty.
I’ve always been this way. After I graduated from college, I lived in a house in Washington, D.C., with three friends. After the first year, one of my housemates said kindly, “The thing about living with you, Gretchen, is that you don’t subtract, and you don’t add. You never leave a mess, and you never bring home a dessert or call the cable guy.” Which was so obviously true that it didn’t even hurt my feelings.
Table of Contents
A NOTE TO THE READER
Find a True Simplicity
Prove My Love
december: INTERIOR DESIGN
• ix •
Cram My Day with What I Love
Experience the Experience
Hold More Tightly
apr i l: NEIGHBORHOOD
Your Happiness Project
The Eight Splendid Truths
Suggestions for Further Reading
Reading Group Guide
HAPPIER AT HOME Discussion Questions
1. What does the term “home” mean to you? Do you agree with Rubin that it’s one of the most important elements to your happiness? Do you have more than one place that you call “home”?
2. Rubin observes that for most people, “outer order contributes to inner calm,” and many of her resolutions are aimed at clutter-clearing. Are you affected by clutter—or not?
3. Rubin describes her struggle to conquer her fear of driving. Have you faced a similar challenge, when you’ve felt anxious about something that other people seem to take for granted (e.g., speaking in front of a group, flying, riding in a ski-lift)?
4. Rubin writes, “Just because something is fun for someone else doesn’t make it fun for me—and vice versa” and “I can choose what I do, but I can’t choose what I like to do.” Do you agree? Or do you think you can teach yourself to enjoy something that initially you don’t find fun? What do you find fun?
5. Do you have any “shrines” in your home? If you were going to make one, what would you include?
6. Rubin describes the three types of happiness leeches: grouches, jerks, and slackers. Do you have happiness leeches in your life? Have you found ways to insulate yourself from the negative emotions these leeches can spread?
7. If you decided to “suffer for fifteen minutes,” what big task might you tackle?
8. Happier at Home is packed with quotations. Which quotation resonated most with you?
9. Rubin repeatedly emphasizes that she wants to find more happiness in her everyday life, and much of her happiness project is aimed at very small, ordinary aspects of her daily routine. Do you agree or disagree with this “little things” approach?
10. If a new room magically appeared in your house or apartment, how would you use it? Is there a way you could make your current place reflect that use now?
11. Did reading this book make you want to try any resolutions? Which ones?
12. Rubin’s discussion of happiness is rooted in her own experience. She doesn’t address the experience of people in different countries, different eras, or different circumstances. Did you find this approach narrow? Or was it helpful to see the theories of happiness tested against the experience of a particular person?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
In the last month, I read both The Happiness Project and Happier at Home. Consider me a convert. In Happiness Project, Rubin explores the theories of happiness and focuses on a different aspect each month. She creates resolutions tailored to her life and I learned a lot about myself in reading where her monthly goals took her. In Happier at Home, Rubin focuses on exactly that: happiness in the home. In showing her desire to be happier at home, Rubin also appreciates how much happiness is there already, from relationships to possessions. She also defines happiness leeches, which is a resonating concept. She shows how some of the things which make us happy require a little unhappiness in the process, such as completing menial tasks. I get this: I know I'm happier once I've cleaned my house but I hate cleaning. I love Rubin's mix of research, memoir, experiment, and information. While there's much about her happiness projects that simply don't apply to me now, I tucked many tidbits away for future reference. Rubin's story, as well as her commitment to telling readers the ups and downs of her resolutions, empowered me to see where I could seek happiness in my home. And she also enabled me to see areas needing improvement. The book inspired me. I've probably brought it up in most of the conversations I've had the past couple of weeks. (I'm sorry, friends. And: you're welcome.) I hope Rubin will keep writing about the subject of happiness. We could all stand to be more mindful of how we impact our own happiness and that of others. And the home is a great place to start.
I first read The Happiness Project "secretly" - it seemed like a not intellectual enough self-help book for a professional woman. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and then became an avid and open follower of all things Happiness related after Anne Marie Slaughter mentions this book in her landmark article "Why Women Still Can't Have It All". So I did not hesitate to buy and read quickly Happier At Home. It complements her first book, does not repeat advice, follows a similar format, and has absolutely changed my life as a busy physician and mother of 4 school aged children. Rubin's suggestions are plentiful - I do not follow nearly all of them, but the few I have put into practice have helped to keep our home running efficiently, and very much lower the amount of yelling at our kids. I highly recommend this book to ALL families!
Happier at Home is definitely a feel good type of book. My husband and I have very stressful jobs and three special needs kids - I was definitely looking forward to reading Happier at Home. So far, I have read it one time through without implementing anything. I just couldn't put it down. Now I plan to read it again - one chapter at a time and work towards implementation. I will say much of what is in here though is common sense - but how many things in life do we ignore, regardless of how common sense-like they are. We are busy, lots to do, places to be and responsibilities to meet. I am glad I took the time to read this book. Even if I (or you) don't take what she says to heart - the manner in which the book is broken down is a great place to start with your own "prescription" for a happier home. All in all I give this book 4 stars. "I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review."
¿Yet again, I saw the effect of the resolution to `Act the way I want to feel.¿ By acting in a thoughtful, loving way, I boosted my feelings of tenderness toward my family. And that contributed more to the happiness of our home than anything else I could do.¿I¿ve been reading Gretchen Rubin¿s The Happiness Project blog for about 6 months now and I am always struck by how practical and normal and simple and approachable it all is. So I was DELIGHTED when I saw that her second happiness-related book was out of NetGalley.In Happier At Home, Rubin undertakes another project ¿ a project to make her home happier (having focussed on herself and her general life in The Happiness Project). It¿s still quite general and focusses on truths that Rubin learned during her first project. She tackles various themes (possessions, parenthood, marriage, neighbourhood) on a month-by-month basis and while not everything works out how she had planned, she discovers a number of great changes in her life.¿In my mind, the entire globe revolves around a single spot, where a bridge red `You Are Here¿ arrow hovers undetected above our roof.¿ The writing does seem a little relentlessly optimistic, and I¿m a touch suspicious of the alleged perfect relationships with all family members; but it does come across as authentic and real. I found the chapter on marriage particularly touching ¿ Rubin is not always successful in making the more generous choice, but it is very interesting to see someone with Rubin¿s talent for articulating feelings examine intra-familial conflict.¿When my days were following their ordinary course, it was hard to remember what was truly important, and my happiness project helped charge my life with more gratitude and contentment.¿I did sit and read this straight through over a number of days (that is, I was reading it as a book rather than a reference text), but I¿m very tempted to buy the book in hard copy as a reference text ¿ something to dip into now and again for ideas and inspiration and consolation.
Happier At Home is a second book by blogger Gretchen Rubin. Rubin has devoted much of her life to studying the idea of happiness. She wants to know what makes people happy, and she wants to put the theories into practice in her own life. So, she decides to devote a school year to improving her happiness at home, and along the way she tries to improve the happiness of her family as well. Rubin takes all of the things she wishes to change about her home life and she devotes one month to change each of the aspects. For example, one of the months she devotes to her possessions, and the importance they play in her life. She wants to use them to create beauty in her home, and make her happy in the process. She doesn’t want the things she owns to control her life anymore. This I can’t see fault with. This is just one of her month long projects. There are many more that almost anyone can see the positive reasons to change in their own lives. The writer says she doesn’t feel that this is a self-help book it is just her talking about what she experienced in carrying out her own project. But I disagree. I think this book has the ability to inspire the readers to go out and create their own happiness projects and do what they need to do to make their homes happier places and become happier people. All in all that is a good thing. People need to have more happiness in their homes and in their life’s. I know that reading this book as inspired me to start my own happiness project and anything that can make me happier is something I view as blessing.
I was really excited to get this book to review. I have seen the great reviews Gretchen got for her first book The Happiness Project. I have been meaning to read that book too, but I haven't. What caught me at first was the first paragraph in the book. It says, "One Sunday afternoon, 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". For some reason, I myself have experienced this same feeling. I have no idea where it comes from or why I am experiencing it, especially when I am already happy with my family and life. Gretchen goes on to talk about home and what she wants from "home" exactly. So, she goes on to devise a plan for 12 months. Each month is dedicated to one theme. The themes are as follows: September-Possessions October-Marriage November-Pay Attention December-Interior Design January-Time February-Body March-Family April-Neighborhood May-Now I think this is a great plan and it's important to spend a month's time focusing on one area in your life instead of feeling overwhelmed at doing them all at once. I enjoyed reading all of her topics and I think those are areas in my life I would choose to work on also. I had some thoughts as I was reading this book. I have never been one for self help books. I think they are great ideas and I see them with great intentions of reading them or thinking that I would enjoy them. But, as I came to find out along with other books of this nature that I have tried to read, it's just difficult. I found differences in her life and my life and knew certain things just weren't going to work. I think she has wonderful ideas and they can work for some people. I just wasn't open to doing some or trying to make them work in my family. She did make many good points though. Some in particular were in the chapter Parenthood. She talked about setting aside specific amount of time to be together with your children. She said, "The days are long, but the years are short." So very true... If you get so busy with life, the most important thing you can do is make time time for your children. Whether you have to schedule it in or not! I also enjoyed her section talking about Warm Greetings and Farewells. Instead of rushing out the door in the mornings or quickly putting your kids to bed at night, make it a memorable one. Start the day off with a hug and a kiss. "That is the most important thing--certainly more important than having an extra few minutes to cross a task off my to-do list." So, overall, in my opinion, I would rate this book 3 stars. Like I said, it is a good book and can be helpful for those willing to listen and follow what she says. Gretchen does make some great points and has some great ideas that I will add to my own life. I would still recommend this book. Gretchen did a great job outlining it and explaining her plan for bringing more happiness into her life. **I received a free copy of this book from Waterbrook Multnomah to review. All opinions expressed are mine.**