A few weeks back, Atlantic.com carried an article about parenting by therapist Lori Gottlieb by the intriguing title How To Land Your Kid In Therapy. I may or may not ever get round to blogging about Gottlieb's views on parenting and how they match with mine (which they do, for the most part, though I don't know if I'd agree with all her points). But I do, however, just need to point this out: she has totally misrepresented Gretchen Rubin.
Rubin, as many people will know, is the author of The Happiness Project, in which she chronicles her year spent working on increasing the happiness level in her life; a month each of focusing on eleven different life areas or aspects of happiness (energy, marriage, children, fun, etc.), wrapped up by a final month of attempting to put into practice everything she'd learned in all eleven areas. She did this by means of working on several resolutions each month, many of them delightfully prosaic – the first month's resolutions included getting to bed on time and decluttering her apartment.
Although I'm always a bit baffled by the concept of needing to work on being happy and don't feel any need to start a Happiness Project myself (plenty of other potential projects, but not one on happiness – I'm happy already, thanks, so I'd rather spend my time and energy conquering some other mountain), I still loved the book. It's not everyone's cup of tea, obviously; it is, essentially, the story of an exceptionally privileged woman painstakingly teaching herself how to stop whinging about relative inconsequentialities and enjoy her privilege, and I do get that this is not everyone's idea of an interesting read. But I was fascinated by the concept of working on the different areas and resolutions, I loved reading about her successes, her backsliding, and her general experiences throughout the year, and I'll often get the book off the shelf to reread a few pages for inspiration and/or sheer fun of reading.
Here, however, is what Gottlieb has to say about it:
The American Dream and the pursuit of happiness have morphed from a quest for general contentment to the idea that you must be happy at all times and in every way. “I am happy,” writes Gretchen Rubin in The Happiness Project, a book that topped the New York Times best-seller list and that has spawned something of a national movement in happiness-seeking, “but I’m not as happy as I should be.” …Still, Rubin writes, she feels “dissatisfied, that something [is] missing.” So to counteract her “bouts of melancholy, insecurity, listlessness, and free-floating guilt,” she goes on a “happiness journey,” making lists and action items, buying three new magazines every Monday for a month, and obsessively organizing her closets.
Minor point: Rubin does, indeed, as I said above, organise her closets along with the rest of her apartment. However, I'd hardly call it 'obsessive' – she spends one afternoon on the project early in the year, and then goes on to make something of a thing of offering the service to any friends of hers who are having difficulty doing the job but would like to, but there's nothing to indicate that she spends any time re-organising her own closet during the rest of the year. A one-off afternoon project is hardly what I'd call 'obsessive' – hell, I've spent twice that time this year on my own closet (so of course I may be biased, but I really don't feel obsessive on the subject and, believe me, I know obsession). This comment just left me feeling that Gottlieb was looking for a bit of an easy shot as a way to discredit Rubin.)
At one point during her journey, Rubin admits that she still struggles, despite the charts and resolutions and yearlong effort put into being happy. “In some ways,” she writes, “I’d made myself less happy.” Then she adds, citing one of her so-called Secrets of Adulthood, “Happiness doesn’t always make you feel happy.”
Modern social science backs her up on this. “Happiness as a byproduct of living your life is a great thing,” Barry Schwartz, a professor of social theory at Swarthmore College, told me. “But happiness as a goal is a recipe for disaster."
Only one little problem with this interpretation; although Gottlieb conveniently omitted to mention this little fact, Rubin's project actually worked very well indeed. Far from being a disaster, it did exactly what she'd hoped – left her feeling far happier with her life by the end of the year.
So why that comment about having made herself feel less happy? One of Rubin's aims, throughout the year, was to work on behaviour that detracted from her happiness by leaving her feeling guilty about having done things she knew she shouldn't, such as gossiping or eating junk food; inevitably, this was often difficult for her in the short term, as she had to focus more on the behaviour of hers that she felt worst about, and the need for changing it. In the long term, of course, it was worth it – she did manage to cut out a great deal of this behaviour, and this was one of the biggest factors in feeling a lot better about her life by the end of the year.
I don't know whether Gottlieb deliberately misrepresented the book; more likely, she just skimmed through it in search of a couple of lines that appeared to work well to back up her point when taken out of context, and didn't bother looking more closely. But what she says about the book simply doesn't represent it fairly, and that annoyed me. I may agree with a lot of what Gottlieb says about parenting, but, on this one, she strikes me as just plain out of line.