The book is subtitled “Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun.” It’s by Gretchen Rubin, a well-intentioned young woman who’s afraid she’s not appreciating her wonderful life enough. So she embarks on a yearlong quest to become a better person by making up all these lists, rules, and whatnot, like her Twelve Commandments, and her Secrets of Adulthood. She also makes twelve resolutions, one per month, that she will obey over the course of a year. Here’s a sample:
- January: “Boost Energy” – subtitle “Vitality” – during which time she will: Go to sleep earlier. Exercise better. Toss, restore, organize. Tackle a nagging task. Act more energetic.
- February: “Remember Love” – subtitle “Marriage.” Action plan: Quit nagging. Don’t expect praise or appreciation. Fight right. No dumping. Give proofs of love.
- March: “Aim Higher” – subtitle “Work“- includes these action items: Launch a blog. Enjoy the fun of failure. Ask for help. Work smart. Enjoy now.
I only got partly through the first chapter. I mean, I’m a nut for self-improvement, but this is something else. Something darker. For example, in the introduction, Rubin mentions wanting to “perfect my character.”
Yet even before setting out on this quest, Rubin accomplished the following (and she is only in her late forties):
- She is a former lawyer who clerked for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
- She married the son of former Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin.
- She has two young daughters.
- She has already written four books.
I guess if she draws up enough goals and objectives, rules, standards and measurements, and then works even harder than she already does every day, after a year she’ll feel more adequate happier. But in my opinion, she exemplifies the collective neurosis of modern-day women, who try so hard to be perfect overachievers. The Happiness Project is like a compilation of the headlines of every insecurity-inducing women’s magazine you’ve ever seen on the newsstands, and the chronicle of one woman’s efforts to bend herself into compliance.
And it’s a flippin’ New York Times Bestselling Book. Obviously, a lot of people are hungry for this message. (I wonder if anybody bought it with the intention of gifting it to a spouse. “Honey, d’ ya think you should maybe do the dishes by hand? Better for the environment, you know.”)
Well, whatever floats their boat. Me, I’m too old for that shit. At sixty, I don’t need to organize my closets to perfect my character. As Popeye said, “I yam what I yam.” Take it or leave it.
Oh, I was young once too, and susceptible to this anxiety. Here’s the evidence: I have thirty-plus years of journals in my garage. One day I thought I’d peruse them for all the delightful memories they no doubt contained. I thought I would read about my son’s growth and development, my wedding(s), vacations, accomplishments, friendships, and maybe even current events. Instead, I found pages and pages – months and years’ worth – of diatribes about how I was going to start a diet, get more sleep, exercise more, read more fiction, meditate, be a better mother/wife/employee…
The overall theme of those journals was that I thought if I only tried harder, I’d be happier. Now I realize the opposite was true: that if I could relax and accept myself, inadequate struggling human that I was, I would enjoy my life more.
See, around the time I turned forty-five, I realized I would never be perfect. It was humbling, but I also accepted that nobody else was, either. I now know that, while self-improvement is a wonderful goal, self-acceptance is pretty cool, too. This is a gift of maturity: that you know this now.
So I say to young Ms. Rubin, next time you feel like questing toward self-perfection, maybe just have another spoonful of cookie dough and hit the couch for a couple episodes of Real Housewives. Because you’re perfect just as you are. (Late note: I just found an article from 2008 – !!! – about the danger of women being compulsive perfectionists. Worth a read. Click here. Also, my friend Bob Ritchie just sent me this link to a very recent essay by David Brooks of the New York Times, who talks about the concept of achieving “agency” – somewhat synonymous with independence, confidence, or sense of self. Very good reading. Click here for that.