Please Don’t Tell Me About Your “Happiness Project”

To-do lists are for errands, not personal fulfillment.

Art credit: Megan Schaller

There’s a famous Groucho Marx joke that goes: “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.” This is how I feel about so-called “Happiness Projects.” They’re clubs for people hell-bent on being happy.

A Happiness Project is a sort of to-do list of happiness-inspiring activities you set out to complete by the end of the year. The term was coined by Gretchen Rubin, a writer, blogger, and lifestyle personality, in her 2009 best-seller, The Happiness Project. In the book, Rubin chronicles her highly structured effort to become very, very happy. Within about two years, acolytes of Rubin began forming Happiness Project Groups, where members could share project ideas and hold one another accountable for meeting goals. Today, per Rubin’s Facebook page, there are active HPGs in every US state, as well as in Canada, the UK, India, Australia, Ireland, and South Africa.

So I kind of joined one. It makes sense to join a running club if you really want to train for a marathon, right? Likewise, if you have a personal goal of polishing off a novel a month, get thyself to a book club. So shouldn’t there be a community for detail-oriented optimists?

I was, of course, skeptical of their approach to finding personal fulfillment — but I was curious, too. Were these proactive happiness-seekers onto something in treating happiness, as elusive and personal as it is, just like any other goal? In any case, I wanted to learn more about HPGs. Spoiler alert: I learned that they’re not for me.

***

With just a few days left in 2017, I created my 2018 Happiness Project, i.e., I made a list of three pastimes I cherish but rarely indulge in: watching a movie in the middle of the afternoon, taking a long walk, and reading a book for hours without interruption.

Unsurprisingly, you don’t need to find a real-life HPG to join the movement; there are Pinterest groups, Facebook groups, and podcasts aplenty to help you find happiness. One of the more active Facebook groups, called “Happier in Hollywood,” boasts nearly 3,000 members.

I checked out a few online groups, expecting to find lists like mine, filled with leisure activities — Sunday brunch, that dream trip to Italy, etc. But what I found instead were photos of handwritten lists — “18 things to do in 2018” — that read more like to-do lists than recipes for happiness. Most items started with guilt-inducing words like finish (“finish the book on my nightstand”), no (“no soda”), and get (“get a new job”).

Admirable goals? Sure. But happy-making? I wasn’t convinced. I thought the purpose of a Happiness Project was to pinpoint what you need in life to feel content, not to burden yourself with more tasks.

Members also posted words of support and suggestions for apps and books related to one another’s project goals. And, less than a month into 2018, people were already posting progress updates on their declarations to, say, buy a musical instrument or book date-night restaurant reservations. 

The accountability aspect of the whole thing — proving to strangers that items are getting crossed off — made me uncomfortable. I wasn’t sure if I was being close-minded, though, so I asked a few friends to weigh in.

“A group that holds you accountable for losing 10 pounds or doing meatless meals every Monday isn’t going to bring anyone joy,” said Jennifer Folsom, a consultant and mother of three who’s writing a book about work-life balance. While Folsom loves Rubin’s Happiness Project book, she says HPGs aren’t her cup of tea. 

“My husband changing the sheets on our bed without my asking? Pure joy,” said Folsom. “Forget the unread book on my nightstand.”

Melanie Padgett Powers, a freelance writer/editor who participates in a Facebook HPG, regularly listens to Rubin’s Happier podcast, and created a list of 32 things to try in 2018, is, quite obviously, a fan of the movement. An effective way to create a Happiness Project, she believes, is to ask yourself what you’ve always wanted to do, or enjoyed as a kid but gave up. “I look at my Happiness Project as more of a bucket list for the year,” said Powers, who’s currently taking a Spanish immersion course in Guatemala — the number-one thing on her list.

But a bucket list with 32, or even 18, activities still seems daunting to me. “People make this long list of things, and then when they don’t do them, it becomes a guilt list,” says Tracey Gritz, a productivity expert.

Gritz recommends picking just one or two things that speak to you. “People forget that there’s a difference between things that make you happy and generally being a happy person,” she said.

Reading that unread book on your nightstand, for instance, might feel good in the moment, but the bigger challenge, Gritz says, is figuring out how to reach a more enduring state of happiness — happiness that isn’t reliant on other people’s actions; happiness that persists even when your boss makes a snarky comment or an obnoxious driver cuts you off on the highway.

Ironically, the day before Gritz and I spoke, a driver did cut me off. All I could think about was catching up to him to shoot him “the look,” even if I had to cut off someone else to do it. But he drove away too quickly and, soon enough, my road rage was gone. 

When I told Gritz about the incident, she suggested that one way to stay happier in a moment like that would be to say, out loud, “Drive safely my friend,” rather than honk my horn and scream obscenities. That way, I’d be “shifting the negative energy.”

I thought she might be onto something. So, I decided to give “shifting the negative energy” a try in 2018, along with watching more movies, taking more walks, and reading more books. And, no, I’m not looking for anyone to hold me accountable.

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