It seems counter-intuitive to spend hours a day engaging in mind-numbing tasks such as de-cluttering and improving time management skills in order to make yourself happier, but best-selling author Gretchen Rubin claims that happiness is achieved by following paradoxes of all sorts: planning ahead to feel spontaneous, giving yourself limits in order to obtain more freedom, or acknowledging a loved one’s sadness to increase their happiness.
In her new book “Happier at Home,’’ Rubin takes the latest research on happiness and turns it into a personal project to boost her satisfaction level by making monthly resolutions in the place where she spends most of her day: at home.
“I realized that home was a fantastic place to focus and is really the foundation for our happiness,” Rubin said in an interview, “but the book is really about renovating my spirit rather than the actual structure of my home.”
For example, Rubin resolves to purchase experiences, rather than more stuff, to make her family happier. That’s based on a 2009 study by San Francisco State University positive psychology researchers who found that when people spent money on theater tickets and vacations — which leave them with happy memories — they felt more long-term life satisfaction from those purchases than when they spent on new clothes, couches, or jewelry. Instead of redoing her kitchen and bathrooms, Rubin takes her older daughter on weekly adventures to fun places around New York City.
She also creates shrines in her house to things she loves most such as a separate shelf in her library for classic children’s books and a shrine for play — a table piled with games and toys. To show how much she values her work space — but hating to take care of real plants — Rubin had wisteria branches and flowers painted on her home office walls.
“Happiness,” she wrote, is “wanting what I have,” not obtaining more or making do with less. She pared down her possessions by getting rid of old unused laptops, working shelf by shelf in those spare minutes in between her writing sessions and daily errands. But she also learned to value what she kept, by — as obvious as this sounds — taking time to read the instruction manual to learn to “master” her new coffeemaker or smartphone.
Interestingly, her family doesn’t, for the most part, sign on to her happiness tenets. Her husband, for example, nixed her idea to have a fun romantic date once a month. “The one resolution I insisted we all keep is warm greetings and farewells,” Rubin said, whenever someone leaves or returns home in order to create a more loving atmosphere. “Since that wouldn’t work if only one of us did it; fortunately, everyone went for it.”
For the most part, Rubin hopes that by improving how she acts around her house, she’ll infect those who surround her with better manners and a more loving spirit. So, she decided that instead of snapping at her two daughters every time they interrupt her in her office, she’d ask them to knock to give her a moment to shift from writer mode to mommy mode. “That little transition enabled me to be warmer and more welcoming,” she told me. And her daughters responded by acting more respectful of her work time.
Some of the chapters in the book, however, stretch the limits of the happier home theme. A chapter on interior design doesn’t delve into selecting paint colors or the principles of feng shui — which might have been helpful to happiness seekers since research suggests both color and furniture organization can have an effect on mood. Instead she spends pages detailing how her husband bought her a bracelet for her birthday rather than the ring she asked for, concluding that she needs to appreciate the spirit of the gift. Huh?
Rubin wrote that since she doesn’t get “creative satisfaction” from shaping the look of her home she’d be “authentically inauthentic” if she started caring about which coffee table went into her living room. That may be true, but she might have spent a little time researching home décor to please readers who actually do care about creating rooms that reveal their identities and personalities.