In Happier at Home, Gretchen Rubin’s follow-up book to her bestseller The Happiness Project (which I have not yet read), she uses a line from Samuel Johnson, eighteenth-century dictionary writer, as the starting point for her journey.
“To be happy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition, the end to which every enterprise and labour tends.”
Rubin begins her project to create more happiness at home with a look at her possessions – not because they are the most important aspect of her home, she maintains, but because she feels her possessions block her view and weigh her down. She wants more control.
That quest really resonated with me. I, too, want more control over my stuff. Rubin’s possessions, as is the case for most of us I imagine, are valuable not because of their monetary value but because of the meanings they contain.
Rubin yearns for a certain simplicity, wants to shed the demands of acquisition. How does she approach this task? She sorts through everything in her home to find out what needs to stay and what can go. Here are some of the steps she goes through, some practical, some moments of self-awareness, that help her make those decisions.
An atmosphere of growth
Rubin writes that research shows that it’s not attaining a goal but the process of striving after goals – that is, growth – that brings happiness. In downsizing-speak, we could say that a having a perfectly clean house does not necessarily bring happiness, but the process of sorting through and getting rid of some of our stuff leads to more happiness.
Rules of engagement
Rubin questions her feelings towards each possession: both its use and her response to it. Am I interested in my stuff? Do I use it? Do I respond positively to looking at it? Do I savor it?
The meaning of meaning
Studies have shown that people with strong ties to others often represent that relationship with objects. But what do we keep, what do we toss? Can I choose something – for Rubin, two glass birds that had belonged to her grandparents – that embody a long and loving relationship? Memories don’t depend on volume she explains. That lesson alone is worth the price of the book.
A sense of order
Rubin writes of the significance of clutter – or lack of clutter – to happiness: Getting rid of clutter gives a disproportionate boost to happiness. Outer order contributes to inner calm. She resolved to go shelf by shelf, drawer by drawer, to ask: Do we need this thing? Do we love this thing? Do we use this thing? If not, we should consider tossing, recycling, or donating it.
Fifteen minutes of suffering
Many of us –maybe I’m talking about myself here – are procrastinators especially when it comes to tasks we don’t really want to do. Rubin maintains that if we are willing to put up with fifteen minutes of suffering each day, we could accomplish much more. The task may be onerous but somewhere in those fifteen minutes, our feelings may go from displeasure at the task to pleasure at having accomplished a goal.
Rubin’s advice is interesting and helpful. Would I follow all of it? Would I create shrines as she calls them, grouping important possessions? Probably not, but her story is compelling and valuable for us to hear. As she says: Everyone’s happiness project is unique. As we say: Everyone’s story is different. That’s why we tell stories and read other people’s stories: to learn about others and – just as importantly – to discover more about ourselves.
≈Linda Hetzer is an editor and author of books on home design, crafts, and food, and coauthor of Moving On: A Practical Guide to Downsizing the Family Home.
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