The Gretchen Rubin Trilogy — Part 2: Happier at Home (2012)

Happier at Home focuses on the physical spaces we inhabit and the people with whom we inhabit them. Here Rubin looks at her belongings, her relationships, her neighborhood, and her work for ways to enhance happiness for all. (Being kinder and less rushed, holding doors, stopping to say hello: all small ways to strengthen happiness of family and strangers.) Reading along with Rubin, I began to see my small home and its treasures — both living and inanimate — in a whole new light.

Our beloved painting by friend Rachel Zur, covering the entire wall in our living room.

Our beloved painting by friend Rachel Zur, covering the entire wall in our living room.

How can our home be more “ours”…a better reflection of our past and better equipped for our future? The book inspired me to examine the possessions filling the shelves in our rooms. Which items really bring us joy and which ones are taking up physical and mental space in our lives? Out went the boxes of “freebies” (free plastic novelty cups, birthday party gift bag toys) filling two corners of our basement. Also in the donation bag went the dusty knick-knacks and junky souvenirs, freeing up room for collections — such as the rock and shell collection from our month-long honeymoon —  and photos that remind me of loved ones and favorite adventures. As for bringing us joy, the original art we have carefully collected since our wedding tops the list, in particular a gorgeous, wall-sized painting by our one-time neighbor and good friend Rachel Zur.

On a roll, I turned to Happier at Home again! Next up, more carefully creating spaces and sanctuaries in our home to nurture our pastimes and make our time spent at home more pleasurable. We upgraded the broken, minuscule TV in our bedroom to a large one we can actually hear and invested in several scented candles. Suddenly we feel like we are in a hotel room while we watch movies on Friday nights! We also rescued a large hammock from the neighbor’s donation pile, repaired and painted it, and now we all have a shady, relaxing place to read books outside on cool afternoons (perhaps with a glass a wine for the grown ups nearby.)

One of my sons reading in the hammock. He is getting a jump start on the Halloween-themed books we all love in October.

One of my sons reading in the hammock. He is getting a jump start on the Halloween-themed books we all love to read in October.

Determined to focus more attention on the relationships that fill my home with love (or tension), I resolved be more loving toward my husband, so it is easier for him to be more loving towards me. I resolved to offer my kids my full attention, so they can feel that their interests (Pokemon, Ironman, NFL football) are ones I also share and value, even if I have to occasionally fake my enthusiasm. This time of year also brings to mind how much our celebration of holidays — especially Halloween and Christmas — brings us all so much joy and gives us wonderful reasons to spend extra time together. I plan to redouble my efforts and cheerfulness about hanging decorations and watching holiday movies together, something we all agree makes the holidays more meaningful.

Two of my favorite pieces of advice from Happier at Home, however, are the ideas Rubin presents for finding our personal “holy places and private landmarks” and “practicing non-random acts of kindness.” Reading this passage, I literally felt a light-bulb go off! One of my favorite places in the region is a local nature preserve. Several times every week, all year long, we go there: to jog, hike, sled, watch turtles, make iMovies, or just enjoy a few moments of peace and quiet. I am amazed how much more I love the park now that I think of it as one of my personal holy places! Another is the small waterfront restaurant where my husband and I got married by the local clerk of court fifteen years ago. We love to drive past it and remind the kids where it all started!

As for the non-random acts of kindness, I was very moved at Rubin’s call to help people with what they actually need rather than jumping in with “random” acts that might be meaningless or even unhelpful. It means much more, I realized while reading, to offer people specific help with immediate needs — giving my seat on the bus to a pregnant woman or helping an older shopper load bags into her car at Trader Joe’s — in contrast to more random or anonymous acts (paying for the car behind us to cross the bridge). Non-random acts bring me closer my neighbors and allow me to know my help was appreciated. After all, Rubin points out, the man in the car behind us on the bridge could be a millionaire!

The Gretchen Rubin Trilogy — Part 1: The Happiness Project (2009)

When I decided to launch this blog, I knew without a doubt which three books would be the first to be examined. The books that inspired me to launch this project and move my life in this new direction are my all-time favorite non-fiction books, The Happiness Project, Happier at Home, and Better Than Before: all by Gretchen Rubin. Late this summer I re-read all three of her books (for the fourth time each) and was reminded why I love her writing so much: it never fails to inspire me to reach for a “bigger life.” This blog is my attempt at a bigger life!

Gretchen Rubin's books in their permanent spot on my bedside table.

Gretchen Rubin’s books in their permanent spot on my bedside table.

Centered on the premise that happiness is a worthy goal within reach of everyone, these books offer readers evidence that the smallest, simplest changes can have profound effects on your life. Rubin uses her experiences, and to some degree those of friends and family, to demonstrate that improving our lives can start right now! Happiness is ours for the taking, and it can be cultivated in the most humble of experiences and the most ordinary places.

Because I am an upbeat optimist, most of the time, her books speak to me very deeply even though her topics are not necessarily “deep.” Rubin shows us that we have the power to be happy simply because we have the power to decide to be happier. It is that simple! By knowing ourselves, seeking out the truth about what truly makes us happy, we can then learn to look for ways to invite more of those experiences into our lives.

Both practical and poetic, Rubin offers small strategies — she calls them resolutions in her early books, habits in her most recent — that can help us begin to find our own path toward a more happy and fulfilling life. Study yourself, she urges, and you can find what you really love and what you really would rather leave behind.  Rubin’s idea of self-study is different from and less threatening (and definitely less expensive) than psychoanalysis. She asks her reader: observe yourself, your actions and responses. Her books are not a prescription to endlessly mull over the thoughts behind your thoughts, or find the deep-rooted past experiences that make you hate party-planning or going to the gym. This seems a simpler but perhaps profoundly more effective way of affecting self-growth than traditional therapy might offer.

Many people stumble along thinking that what others do for pleasure should be the things they do as well. How enlightening to be encouraged to dig deep into everyday matters and find the real answers to what makes us happy! Finally, we can admit “I really do not like going out to restaurants” or “re-reading Harry Potter is my favorite way to spend a rainy day.” She calls on us to stop doing things that drag us down (hate parties? say “yes” less often) so we can carve out room for the events, people, or experiences that do make us happy. Genius!

Happiness Project focuses on Rubin’s own path to a happier life, detailing her work to keep resolutions aimed at making her happier such as sleeping more, arguing less, getting exercise, and saying yes to new experiences (even if starting something new makes her less than happy at the start). Along the way, Gretchen Rubin and I find out much about ourselves and are challenged to identify what we love and to take concrete steps to welcome more of that love into our lives.

Find more about Gretchen Rubin at http://www.gretchenrubin.com/

I’ve Just Finished Reading…is Launched!

I am a lifelong book-lover, library MVP, magazine aficionado, and I spend almost all of my free time reading. When I am not reading on my own, I am reading to — or talking about books with — my three sons and my husband, all devoted book-lovers themselves. It is not uncommon for me to be reading several novels, non-fiction books, and magazines at once covering a wide-range of topics. I love to talk about what I read and how it affects me.  Find me every day trying to corner my loving husband, my friends, strangers at cocktail parties, even my sons into listening — at length — to my thoughts on the amazing (or thrilling, or thought-provoking) book I’ve just finished reading.

This blog idea was born during a conversation with a librarian at my local branch — where my family and I go several times and week and check out dozens of books at a time — who mentioned that I seem to have so much to say about what I read, maybe I should start writing my thoughts down. I started to make a joke with my husband about writing a blog and, when he told me it was the perfect idea, “I’ve Just Finished Reading…” was born.

This blog will serve as a catalog of sorts for the wide range of reading I complete every month and give me an outlet for discussing what I thought of them…sometimes with weighty and in-depth comments, other times with light-hearted reviews.

“I’ve Just Finished Reading…” is a new project for me, my first venture of any sort into public writing and my first time using any kind of digital format to connect with others. I will never claim to have a formal background in writing, nor experience in reviewing books, and certainly no professional expertise in the online world. What I am is a woman who has nurtured a lifelong love of reading who wants to share her thoughts for other book-lovers who — like me — are always looking for something new to check out of the library.

I hope to post several times a week with short comments about what I have read and what I loved (or didn’t love) about it. I promise to include full title and author information so you can find the book yourself and to make every attempt to avoid spoilers.

Enjoy!