Happier at Home: Possessions

I picked up a copy of Gretchen Rubin’s new book, “Happier at Home,” from work last month (our books editor gets sent lots of books to review, and some of the rejects end up on the “up-for-grabs” counter, as I like to call it). I haven’t read her book that skyrocketed her onto the New York Times bestseller list, “The Happiness Project,” but I was vaguely familiar with the concept behind it – intentionally making small changes in your life that overall add up to more happiness. It sure sounds like an interesting experiment, right?

So I opened up “Happier at Home” and started reading. It’s the same concept as “The Happiness Project,” only focused on home life rather than life in general, I suppose. The book is divided into chapters by month – each month Gretchen focuses on a different aspect of the home and sets several goals or changes to make to see if they result in more happiness. Lest you write this off as navel-gazing, I should note that Rubin does an excellent job of incorporating research in with her anecdotes and personal feelings, so it reads as more than a diary. At least so far – I’m only one chapter in, ha.

Conveniently, the book starts with September, the beginning of the school year – oh yeah, and the month the book was released. Before this starts to sound like a book review of a book I’m only one chapter into, I’m sure you can see where this is headed. Seeing as it was September, and I love a good personal challenge, I decided to maybe, kind of, sort of go along for the ride with Gretchen and partake in some of her goals each month.

Now, before I continue, let me get one thing out of the way: I’m not entirely comfortable with her use of the word “happiness.” From what I’ve gathered so far, her philosophy is that happiness is a thing to be pursued daily, and that pursuit is, a lot of the time, in the small details of everyday life. I totally agree that it’s the little things each day that determine a lot of my mood and enjoyment of life. But I believe that true happiness is something that comes from above. No matter how hard I try to achieve happiness on my own, I’m still broken and in desperate need of a savior. I can have all the little details of my life nailed down and be miserable without God’s mercy. On the other hand, I can live in chaos and physical despair, but have peace in my heart because of His love. (Side note: what a comfort that my hope is found in something much greater than this world!)

So essentially, I think if Rubin is searching for true happiness, or even a mere glimpse of it, she’s looking in the wrong places. But if we’re just talking about improving quality of life, as long as the activities of this pursuit don’t become idols – that is, essential to your happiness – then I think this project can be useful.

That’s the tough part though. It’s a fine line. John Calvin wrote: “Man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.” We’re so naturally inclined to put anything and everything before God that I struggle with whether any sort of “happiness project” that doesn’t involve God is right. There’s no black and white answer.

That being said (wow, this post got a lot deeper than I originally intended! Funny how that happens when you stop to really think about what you’re thinking about), I’m going to treat this book as good motivation to focus a little more on some things that can help make my life easier and more pleasant, and be aware that in and of itself, this project will not lead to true happiness.

OK, so back to September…

Rubin’s first month’s topic is possessions. An interesting place to start, right? Possessions can bring much joy, but they also can weigh you down. I’m not going to go into too much detail on the chapter, but the three resolutions Gretchen set were cultivate a shrine, go shelf by shelf and read the manual.

Cultivate a shrine: Rubin said her goal was to “transform areas of my apartment into places of super-engagement.” She did this through tasks like swapping out photos in frames, displaying meaningful mementos and reorganizing her workspace.

My take: I am just awful at printing and displaying photos. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I’ve gone years at times with frames displaying the generic black and white photos they came with. In fact, I’m staring at a giant, empty collage frame I bought for like $10 on Black Friday, um… three years ago? Maybe four. Oops. So, while the collage frame escaped my newfound motivation to just put some darn photos in the frames (I guess it’s just become a natural part of the scenery in here, so I didn’t even notice it. Pathetic.), I was inspired to make use of some empty frames on my desk and fill them with a few nice, recent-ish photos. Now I can gaze up at friends and family while I’m browsing the Internet. How lovely, and long overdue. I still have some progress to make in other rooms, but this little photo frame task has made a worthy impact on the pleasantness of sitting at my desk at home.

One source of stress I’ve noticed in my life surrounds my morning routine. When my closet and bathroom are messy and disorganized, I get frustrated while trying to get ready for the day. So this month I “cultivated a shrine” in my closet and bathroom (that just doesn’t sound right!) This move was actually inspired by my mom and sister, who both recently created very shrine-like closets for themselves, but it fits right in with this chapter of the book. I’ll save the details for a separate post, but I made a few simple changes that dramatically impact the overall agreeability of my morning routine.

In thinking about this idea of making your favorite areas in your home really comfortable, I also came up with a plan for our sunroom, which is a lovely space that doesn’t get used to its full potential. It’s the perfect spot to relax with a book (something I wish I did more of) so why don’t we keep our books in there and turn it into a mini library? I’ll keep you posted on how this plays out.

Go shelf by shelf: Gretchen had some useful tips for clearing out and reorganizing her house. Things like: clean as you go, abandon a project that you know you won’t finish, buy what you need and clear surfaces. I liked her recognition of the difference between something that wasn’t used and something that was useless. It’s OK to keep something for purely sentimental reasons. Just don’t keep everything!

My take: Gretchen has way more time than I do to actually go shelf by shelf, but I did make a tiny bit of progress. I purged our shoe closet of flip flops I hadn’t worn in years. I cleared several piles of junk off my desk (you can see the surface again!) Throughout the month I continuously added clothes and objects to half a dozen bags I plan to donate (now to just take them to Goodwill…) I recycled old boxes I had been saving and got rid of or filed a bunch of papers. These were all small steps, but any little dent helps in keeping your possessions from overtaking your home, and even a little bit of clutter-clearing gives me a sense of satisfaction.

Read the manual: Funny how just taking a few minutes to properly learn how something works can make life so much easier. I can’t think of any specific examples of how I put this to work last month, but it’s a good piece of advice to bear in mind.

I feel like I could stay quite busy concentrating on these September goals for the rest of year, but alas, it is October, and this month’s topic is marriage. Yikes. I’ll write another recap at the end of the month. Care to join me? Grab a copy of the book and let me know your thoughts!

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