Monday, April 25, 2011

Happy Ever After - Happiness & the Royal Wedding

Nick Duerden, a Guardian UK reporter (and twenty-first century dad) is upset over the message being sent to his daughter by the upcoming Royal Wedding.

His daughter is in her princess phase, when she spends her free time reading about princesses, dressing like a princess, watching movies about princesses, etc. He appears to be waiting it out for her to grow into a sane phase. Unfortunately, her princess phase is coinciding with the Royal Wedding.

Why do girls think that becoming a princess will help them to live happily ever after? The unhappy life and tragic death of Princess Diana and the high rate of divorce in the British royal family alone is evidence that marrying into royalty does not lead to happiness. Other royal families don't seem to have better marital track records.

The most frightening part of the article was when Duerden discussed an American woman who runs a very pricey princess camp for American pre-teen girls. Her students might be better off taking an American etiquette course to help them in the American business world (for starters, we handle a knife and fork differently than a European). Their chances that they will have to support themselves are much higher than their chances of marrying into royalty. After watching Fergie fall into major debt, these girls would be better off if they got decent jobs and found a fiscally responsible partner. I was raised to believe (possibly erroneously) that as American citizen, I don't curtsy to royalty; I find it very disturbing that these pre-teens are being taught to do so.

In fact, even these princess camp attendees face a possible future of poverty. According to the many publications on the non-profit Wiser Women's website:

a large number of American women have not saved enough for retirement, are postponing retirement, and face lives of poverty after they stop working. Many of these women lacked the financial knowledge and impulse control needed to build up retirement savings and to keep themselves out of debt. They had expected their husbands to provide them with financial security.

Why do women pay to attend princess camps? Should parents support their daughters' princess phase, or try to cut it short? Please comment.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Buy Some Happiness- Indulge in a modest splurge

When I when went on line today to post, I noticed an artcle written by Katherine Rosman, a Wall Street Journal Finance writer:

The author's husband had criticized her need to incorporate a $4.00 latte into her daily commute. My initial reaction was the daily latter could fall into Rubin's suggestion of "Indulge in a modest splurge" (p.174) However, Rosman's husband calculated that she was spending $1000/year on lattes. This moved the latte out of the modest splurge category and into the somewhat pricey passion category.

As I read the article, I realized that in addition to the drink, the whole Starbucks experience was important to the writer. It was, in a minor way, her equivalent of going to the mythical "Cheers" to buy a drink. Entering the Starbucks, being waited on, possibly even that caffeine jolt made up for her grueling morning commute. She wasn't spending money on the item but on the experience.

All the books that I've read about happiness assert that spending money on experiences, not objects, will bring you more happiness. Can little indulgences, like coffee, be viewed as experiences rather than as material consumption? Or will the author ultimately be happier if she put that money aside and invested it monthly in an IRA rather than spend it on a decadent beverage?

Please comment.

Happiness is Pursuing Your Passions

In September, Rubin decides to find happiness by pursuing a passion. In her case, her passion is reading:

"Although reading was one of my most important priorities and certainly one of my greatest pleasures, I never really gave it much thought. I wanted more time to read-more books, with more enjoyment. To do so, I gave myself permission to read at whim." (p.228)

She decided to stop reading a book if she finds it uninteresting, rather than force herself to finish it. She weeds her bookcases, and donates unwanted books. She realizes that she hates books about people who have been unjustly accused, and resolves that she won't read them.

This chapter had a great impact on me. For years, I have felt guilty for reading books when I am not commuting. I have always felt that my time off a train should be spent more productively - i.e. socializing, vacuuming (a big need in recent years), doing laundry, balancing my checkbook, etc. Whenever I did read a book, I always had a thought in the back of my mind about what I should be doing instead of reading. Now that I view it as pursuing a passion, I am definitely happier.

Rubin also inspired me to weed my books. While I do this annually, I realized that I still owned many books that I hadn't read in years but did not want to get rid of because to do so would be to admit that my priorities have changed. I have become a different person, one who is NOT going to rereadthe several dozen books currently sitting in a corner of my living room. I'm just not that interested in the Kalevala or Greek philosophy or certain kinds of medieval poetry. Admitting this does not mean that I am a bad person or that my brain is rotting - I've just changed. While I am not happy about the effort that it will take to lug the books into to my branch so that BPL can sell them online to earn money, I am happy that they will be gone soon and not silently reproaching me whenever I sit on my couch.

Last weekend, I helped my sister with her final decluttering. Today, I urged another sister to go through her books and donate them to declutter HER house. I realized that getting rid of books is a way to become a new person. I give myself permission to move away from past interests in order to pursue new ones. I also give myself more free time since I now longer have to dust the books.

Why do people feel guilt over getting rid of books? Is it because of respect for the written word and the ideas they contain? Or is it a refusal to admit that they have changed and moved beyond these books? Please comment.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Joy of Work

Yesterday's New York Post had an article about the joy of working:

According to the author (who is reviewing a book called "Rush: Why you need and love the rat race" by Todd Buchholz), Americans are actually happiest when they are at work. This is because work gives them a buzz - they get into a flow that amkes them happy. He contrasts this with men in France, who are more likely to be retired in their 60's and whose cognitive function has decreased as a result of not working.

Rubin also discusses the "flow " concept (taken from Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi's book "Flow." However, she ties it into the creative process. The NY Post author seems to view any intellectually engaging work as causing "flow." One of thereasons that I found this article interesting is that I am currently reading Robert B. Reich's "Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future".

Reich does not appear to be a fan of the rat race:

"The harder we worked to buy these things, the less time and energy we had to enjoy what we bought. American culture sent an increasingly mixed message: Work like mad but enjoy life to the fullest...The argument on behalf of hard work has always been premised in something of a lie. People are led to believe that one day they will find satisfaction, if not in the work itself, when they have finally worked hard enough to afford and accumulate what they desire. But that day never seems to arrive." (p. 87).

Reich's premise is that people will never be satisfied because the economy is stacked against the middle class. The middle class has developed an idea of how should live to be happy. Unfortunately, the growing class divide, and the outsourcing or elimination of jobs will prevent the middle class from reaching these standards. As a result, people will work themselves to death and die, miserable, unable to achieve their perceived economic goals.

Buchholz, in return, is encouraging people to work just for the joy of working. While this sounds puritanical, Buchholz may just be a practical guy. More and more baby boomers are having to postpone their retirement because of the recession. Why not make it a virtue (a way to keep your brain healthy) rather than as a necessity.

Yet more decluttering

On Saturday, I helped my sister with her final decluttering. We drove a huge carload of clothes, craft supplies, and school supplies to a family shelter in Queens. They were somewhat staggered by the amount of donated items, but they seemed happy.

Then today, I read one of my favorite blogs by an author named Vivian Swift:

Vivian also decluttered, but did it with much more style. She donated her items to an animal shelter thrift shop, then went for a hike with a shelter dog, and then bought loads of tasty Dutch baked goods. I knew we should have celebrated our final decluttering trip with a coffee run. Vivian's commenters have some interesting ideas about what makes them happy (it isn't always decluttering).

Monday, April 11, 2011

Happiness & Decluttering

As part of her project, Rubin decided to declutter her apartment. She started with her own closet and gradually worked her way through her house. The decluttering actually provided her with a great deal of satisfaction. The visual emptiness of the space cleared her mind. She also felt as if she had more clothes since she had kept only the ones she lived and wore, which she could easily find.

I am a big fan of decluttering. Over the years, I've assisted family members in decluttering their houses and apartments. Every time I do so, I then return home and do a quick declutter of my apartment. Every season, I go through clothes and donate unwanted ones. However, I do think decluttering can be taken to an extreme. I always wait a day before I finally donate or discard an item to see if I'll change my mind.

The perceived need to live in a spartan environment can cause as much unhappiness as living in an overly cluttered one. Sometimes we need some clutter or disorder to humanize our environment. One of the few places where I've seen this need acknowledged is on a voluntary simplicity blog that I follow:

During the course of Rubin's decluttering, She offers to clean out the closets of her friends. At one point, her husband even chastises her for immediately offering to declutter the apartment of their dinner hosts.While I think that it is great that Rubin wants to share happiness with her friends and loved ones, she also might want to look at the several compassionate and sensible posts on decluttering in that voluntary simplicity blog.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Memories and Happiness

One of Rubin's happiness resolutions involved creating "a treasure trove of happy memories". Since she is apparently an extremely organized person as well as a devoted mother, she creates memory file boxes for her daughters. She builds her own scrapbooks with She hires a professional photographer to take family portraits.

I am not photo person. With the exception of my brother and some friends who are talented photographers, I can tolerate very people who show me large amounts of personal photos. My happy memories are triggered by a certain angle or shade of light, by music, and by food.

However, I realize that (in the US at any rate), I am abnormal. Many Americans greatly value family movies, photos, and scrapbooks. Whenever I walk into a Michaels, I am dazzled by the complexity of American scrap booking. My photos are tossed into a plastic milk crate on a high shelf in a closet. As I read Rubin's book, I found myself wondering if I am missing out on the happy memories because I am not a photo person.

My questions are:

  • do people actually use these keepsakes to remind themselves of happy memories?

  • are tangible treasure troves needed to create memory treasure troves?

  • is the need to always catch that moment a cause of unhappiness for some people?

Please comment. My next post will be on decluttering.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Money & Happiness

Rubin's July chapter, "Buy Some Happiness", focuses on the relationship of happiness and money. She looked at studies about the subject and concluded: "...studies show that people in wealthier countries do report being happier than people in poorer countries, and within a particular country, people with more money do tend to be happier than those with less. Also, as countries become richer, their citizens become less focused on physical and economic security and more concerned with goals such as happinesss and self-realization. Prosperity allows us to turn our attention to more transcendent matters - to yearn for lives not just of material comfort but of meaning, balance, and joy." (p.166)

Back in 2008, I led a discussion on this blog about Eric Weiner's The Geography of Bliss. Two of the happiest countries in the book, countries who actually had Gross National Happiness Indexes, were Nepal and Thailand. Neither country is rich, and their inhabitants make considerably less than Americans, who scored much lower on the happiness scale in Weiner's book. This may be connected to Rubin's finding that people are happier when they live in a neighborhood with people who make similar salaries and have a similar level of job achievement. Like is apparently happier with financial like.

Rubin eventually concludes that "both money and health contribute to happiness mostly in the negative; the lack of them brings much more unhappiness than possessing them brings happiness." (p.169) She also decided that indulging in a modest splurge will help increase her happiness provided that she spent it in a way specifically designed to do so, but that eventually the happiness buzz will wear off and she will have forgotten about it.

I personally don't agree with Rubin about some of her conclusions about money and happiness. I spent a number of years living in a cheap studio apartment in a very nice (but still inexpensive at the time) neighborhood. I paid little rent. I also had almost no natural light due to a dearth of windows. When I moved to my current apartment, I was overwhelmed by actually seeing sunlight. Every day, I feel happinees and gratitude over the fact that I had enogh money to move to an apartment with more than one window. I have friends who years afterwards still talk about how moving to their current (and more expensive) apartment changed their life for the better. None of us are living in luxury, but our current abodes are much better than our old ones. We are still grateful for the fact that we had enough money to move.

In July, Rubin decides to spend her money on needful things that will make her happy. For example, she buys some new shirts that are her dream shirts. This lets her have a small number of clothes that she wears regularly rather than many that she ignores because they aren't right. She also buys an expensive blender, which she uses ever day. In short, she tries to spend on quality items that will also improve her quality of life.
However, she also seems to focus mostly on how these things and consumption in general cause happiness.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin - Is the quest for happiness overrated?

Last night, I was describing to a group of friends why Rubin wrote this book. I began with the quote that I cited in my earlier post, where Rubin has an existential crisis while riding on a bus. One of my friends commented that life, is indeed, just that. That is basically all there is to life, so accept it and move on. I, myself , wonder sometimes if happiness is not overrated. I've seen people spend a fortune on interior decorating, buy designer pets whose lives they have then made miserable, or leave a spouse all in the quest for happiness. People might actually be happier if they accepted the need for unhappiness. Was the quest for happiness a source of unhappiness? Do we need the dark to appreciate the light?

With this in mind, I decided to look for any comments that Carl Jung had made about happiness. I found this:
"So they speak soothingly about progress and the greatest possible happiness, forgetting that happiness is itself poisoned if the measure of suffering has not been fulfilled."

With some further searching, I found that Rubin had done a post on Jung's Five Basic Factor's for Happinees:

I plan on discussing one of these factors tomorrow when I discuss Rubin's attempts to see if money can buy happiness
. As of now, I'm wondering whether happiness is overrated and must you be miserable to realize when you are happy? Please comment.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Introduction to The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

I am actually not a great reader of self-help guides. In fact, they often make me so stressed out by emphasizing my own inadequencies that I am forced to make myself a relaxing cup of coffee to drink while reading Terry Pratchett. I still have nightmares about one guide to the simple life that I read in the late 1990's - the author donated everything she owned to charity, then went out and bought entirely new possessions to compliment her scaled-down life. The mere thought of all the packing and shopping gave me a genuine anxiety attack.

I was therefore initially dubious about The Happiness Project. Rubin starts the book with a description of why she decided to embark on her Happiness Project:

"One April day, on a morning just like every other morning, I had a sudden realization: I was in danger of wasting my life. As I stared out the rain-spattered window of a city bus, I saw the years were slipping by. ""What do I want from life, anyway," I asked myself. "Well...I want to be happy." But I had never thought about what made me happy or how I might be happier." (p.1)

Rubin then decided to embark on a year-long experiment to make herself happier by making herself into a better person.

In the next two months, I hope to lead a discussion about

-the nature of happiness

-the possbility of achieving happiness by following Rubin's techniques,

-whether the cause of unhappiness is, indeed, other people.

    Rubin's own blog can be found here: