19 March 2012

Book Club and The Happiness Project

According to a recent study, “Joining a meaningful group that meets just once a month produces the same happiness gain as doubling your income” (New York Times, David Brooks, March 29, 2010).

That is exactly how I feel about book club.

Some of my friends started a book club last fall, and I look forward to it each month.

It is part girls' night out. It is part support group as we learn from and encourage each other and sometimes commiserate together. It is part escape from reality. And sometimes we sneak in an actual discussion about the book.

Our first book club went till three in the morning. We spent NINE hours sitting around my friend's kitchen table, laughing so hard that we were crying and diving into deep conversation. None of us realized how long we had been there until around 1am when we all started getting text messages from our husbands asking if we were okay.

Even though it's hard to recover the next day from these late nights, I wouldn't trade them for anything.

I love the women with whom I get to share these evenings.

And surprisingly, I've become more of a reader as well.

I'm not the type that will soak in the tub at night and read. Or sit down and read during the day. No. I'm the type that will wait until the last three days and cram in the book every second I get...at the dentist, while I'm making dinner, while I'm waiting to pick Blake up from school, etc. But, since I have a deadline, I get the books read and I love it.

Usually when I read a book, it's from the parenting or self-help genre. But I have to admit that I've really liked a few of the novels on our list. I never would have read them if it wasn't for book club. I love to be taken into different worlds as I read. Books take me to "places" I've never been and make me think about things outside my little realm of changing diapers and dusting blinds and hugging my boys to smithereens. Which is all good, but I want so much to be open to the bigger world.
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Last month, it was my turn to host. We read The Happiness Project.
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I both really liked and really disliked this book.

Here was my problem:

While the author was out strolling in NYC all day having her happiness epiphanies, who was tending to her toddler? Who was cleaning her triplex on the Upper East Side? While she spent her waking hours doing research at the library, intermixed with yoga, weightlifting, and cocktail parties galore, who took care of the morning rush and sick kids and grocery shopping?

The point of the book was to give light on how to improve happiness, and I was left with a daunting feeling of how in the world she did it all - the charts, reading, writing, exercising, volunteering, socializing, parenting, collecting, and glue-gunning. I relaxed when I learned later that she had a sitter and a housecleaner. And a cook. And a millionaire husband.

I found myself rolling my eyes on more than one occasion at some of her "epiphanies." In one chapter, she wracked her brain to think of how she might store all her children's cards, photos, and other paper goods. What to do? Stacks weren't working! Surely there must be some way of filing paper goods away in some sort of storage device...and then it hit her: file boxes! Are you kidding me? How does someone get that far in life without having ever heard of organizing papers into files?

There were other such oddities that made me wonder if this woman and I were living on the same planet, such as when she decided that collecting something might make her happy but couldn't think of anything to collect. Is it me? Does everyone else begin collections by consciously deciding that they need one, then having to try and think something up to collect? I just thought that sort of thing tended to happen more organically. And I'm so anti-clutter that I couldn't relate to her collecting epiphany at all.

Even though I found this book to be a whiny memoir from a self-absorbed New Yorker, there were some real gems wrapped up in the boring descriptions of the author's life and projects. I dog-eared half of the book, so obviously there were many quotes that stood out to me.
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This book has made me think, am I happy? Am I as happy as I ought to be? Should happiness be a pursuit or a goal? Or is it silly and selfish to devote much time to thinking about my own happiness?

I don’t have a lot of chances to think a whole lot about whether or not I am happy. I remember contemplating happiness back when I was single and had plenty of quiet moments. But since having a family, I've been so busy doing everything that comes along with dealing with a household and the needs of small children that I never get around to thinking about happiness much.

I experience lovely fleeting moments of happiness every day. When I hear a funny comment from one of my boys, when my husband and I share an inside joke, when I see my child accomplish something he is proud of, when I snuggle with my little ones as we read together. I feel a satisfaction kind of happiness whenever I accomplish something or complete a task. So I'm experiencing happy moments a lot and I'm so grateful for each of them.

But do I feel happy all the time?

I often feel worried and stressed and overwhelmed. And I think this is partially because I think about what I need to DO much more than I think about who I need to BE. I think about accomplishments far more than optimism and gratitude.

As the author put it, "I am happy - but I’m not as happy as I ought to be. I have such a good life, I want to appreciate it more - and live up to it better…I complain too much, I get annoyed more than I should, I should be more grateful.”

I especially liked her chapters focusing on relationships. I am always resolving to improve my relationships with those I love most, and little reminders to give proofs of love, nag less, refrain from using the words "no" and "stop" with my children, articulate the other's point of view, and go on frequent dates always make me feel warm and fuzzy.

In the end, what I took from this book is that happiness takes energy and discipline. Some people are unhappy because they won’t take the trouble to be happy. We are in charge of our own happiness and finding systems that work to improve our actions and relationships.

And I can't argue that eating better, exercising more, being more grateful, organized, and friendly, and becoming a better wife and mother are worthy resolutions to pursue.

The "dessert" of any book to me, whether it is well-liked or not, is getting to discuss it with my book club...women who I love and who are always game to discuss it's intricacies in minute details until late into the night.

Even the author said, "Studies show that if you have five or more friends to discuss an important matter, you’re far more likely to describe yourself as “very happy.”

I agree wholeheartedly.

Book club greatly improves my happiness.


5 comments:

  1. I agree. I can't imagine my life without book club. I love that we share so much more than a book with each other. We open up and share our lives and become better friends. I love how much we laugh during those times. Times I wouldn't trade for anything, even if we are all very tired the next morning.

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  2. Great post :) My co-worker is reading that book and I am supposed to borrow it when he is finished. I hardly read ever though, I feel like I don't have time for it usually :( But I guess I wanted to see if it could help me to be 'happy'. Reading your post I kind of realized that I too measure happiness to be accomplishments, which is kind of weird when you realize it. Anyway, I think I already know that I need more relationships in my life to be happier- still tough when you relocate and have zero friends around. It is getting better though, maybe I should join a book club too? Anyway, glad I got some insight before reading that book!

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  3. Coming from the Tanner family I feel like being happy has been a focus since I could remember :), so I've often felt frustrated when I realize that I'm still not always good at making the right decisions to make it (happiness) happen as best as I can. I loved your insights, thanks!

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  4. My book club is my sanity. I absolutely love it.

    And I didn't read the chapter on kids :) Nor did I ever stop to think who was taking care of her children while she was running around NYC, hahaha, I guess that's not the way my mind is programmed yet since I don't have little ones. But I did think she had a lot of awesome insights that really changed the way I think about some things! I think I should probably go back through and re-read the chapter on relationships...

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  5. Amen to every word (except I don't dust my blinds :)! I like to read and liked the girls that were all part of the club so I thought it would be a pretty fun way to spend some time. But little did I realize how deeply I would enjoy it and how hard we would laugh and how nourished I feel by great female friends (especially when we're all away from our kids and distractions and just get to be girls and enjoy each other).

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