January 16, 2012

Dear Gretchen Rubin, Happiness is Overrated.

                                             Photo taken by Kerry Docherty outside Lopuri, Thailand

I stumbled across the book The Happiness Project last year by Gretchen Rubin. In the book, Gretchen chronicles a year in which she focuses on being happy. The book has become a best seller, and even though the premise of the book is a little cheesy (but certainly no less than my book may be), I can't help but love the woman considering she wrote me an email.

Well, back up. First, I wrote her a stalker-ish emailed titled "we're the same, except you're a better version than me" and then shared the parallels of our lives--we both lived in New Haven, we both went to law school (she to Yale), we both were federal law clerks (she for a Supreme Court Justice), we both moved to NYC (she to a bigger apartment), and decided to write a book (she a successful author). I mean, if that's not a soul mate, what is?

So, I wrote her an email asking her to coffee and promising that we would have so much in common that she'd randomly decide to be my mentor and walk me through this strange journey of writing a book. That almost happened.

When I say things "almost happened," I usually mean that I was utterly rejected. Like if I were to tell you that I was almost on the hip hop dance team in college, you'd know that I actually endured a humiliating tryout where i failed to properly do the Harlem Shake and fell on my chin while trying to do the "worm," such that I didn't get a call back.

So, when I say that Gretchen Rubin almost became my mentor, I mean that she kindly wrote me back, telling me that she was working on another book and, at this point in time, saying "no" to all invitations. That being said, she didn't refute my statement that we were the same, and she even told me good luck on my endeavors. I saved the rejection under my "Inspiration" label of gmail.

Gretchen, I can call her by her first name at this point, don't you think?, has now dedicated her life to sharing tips on being happy. Her following is huge in large part because so many people want to be happy. Who doesn't?

Well, maybe me. I mean, of course I want to be happy, but I've become so bombarded by information as to what happiness looks like, that I don't even know what happiness means anymore.  It's that feeling of, "sure I want it, but what's 'it' again?"

So, when people tell me they're "happy," I always want to know more. What does it feel like? Like in your body and in your mind? How long does it last?  And when you can't feel it anymore, what replaces it? Is it a continuous high, a freeness, a state of euphoria?

And what's the cause of it? What's the source?  I know happiness isn't an accumulation of good things in one's life because there are times when I've had a nice apartment, significant other, great friends, and a world of opportunity, and still felt anxious and burdened. I also know that happiness is not merely a lack of suffering, because there have been times when I've been fully immersed in suffered-filled situations and felt happy.  Happiness isn't merely the following of one's dreams either because even though I'm writing a book and embarking down a path more aligned with my passions, I don't really feel that different than I did a year ago. Maybe more energized perhaps, but certainly no happier. 

Perhaps I've felt happiness before, but as I remember it, it was kind of boring. One of those "oh, well, this is nice." Or maybe I had a burst of "hallelujah, life is good!" before realizing that I had to the dishes before company came over.  It felt kinda like how you feel after a good meal, where you sit back in your chair with your top button unbuttoned and you pass on dessert because you don't feel like you need anything else to feel satisfied.

Along those lines, then, maybe we should talk about contentment. "Oh shut up, Kerry," you may be thinking, "now you're getting into semantics--happiness and contentment are virtually the same thing, so move on." And, maybe you're right, and when it coms to semantics, I'm the last person you'd want to talk to considering I use words wrongly (wrongly is a word, right?). But, I still think there's a difference in what we expect happiness and contentment to look like; the words, to me, conjure entirely different feelings.

When I think about happiness, I think about ooey gooey feelings of giddiness, of slight intoxication, of the allure of the unknown, the intimate touch of comfort, or an orgasmic bite of a bacon-ridden meal.  My happiness moments stem from something wonderful and external--friends, date nights, music, food, and coconut smelling bubble baths. These moments are amazing, but oh-so-fleeting. Happiness' downfall therefore is its stamina; it just doesn't seem to last that long. And yet, it tries so hard. It's like we're taking Viagara for happiness, begging it to last longer, and then feeling disappointed when it goes limp minutes later.

Contentment, however, is happiness' rebellious sister. The one that says, "yeah I like to feel good, but who cares?" It's that state of being without desire--that, no matter if good or bad happens, she knows she'll still be okay; that "yeah this is fun, but I'd probably be just as content if I was sitting home alone"; that "there's a long line at the grocery and a child is crying, but that's okay because I'm where I'm supposed to be"; that "it'd be nice to be eating out right now, but this bowl of apple cinnamon Kashi oatmeal surely will do." Content moments seem to last longer because they usually don't result from anything but a feeling of fullness. And, because it doesn't feel as amazing as happiness, it tends to be less addictive; there's not as much panic in holding onto it or searching for it to get the next high.

Don't get me wrong, contentment doesn't seem that sexy. But I trust it more. All I know about happiness is that it tricks me to wanting more of something that I can't ever hold on to. So, Gretchen Rubin, I haven't given up on you, but this whole "Happiness Project" has made me question whether a pursuit of happiness will make me happy or just make me feel guilty about the fact that I can't hold happiness long enough. If you write a Contentment Project, then we're talking.


  1. I really enjoyed this post me thinking !

  2. kerry - she is NOT a better version of you, just perhaps a different version. (in-enoughness?!?!) And on happiness...did you see this article in the Huffington Post about child-raising?
    It kind of made me think of your happiness post. You don't have to happy 100% of the time, you just have to have 'happy moments" a few times during the day. I think it's okay if your happiness is fleeting, just as long as you recognize having been happy at all.

    good post!

  3. Thanks Tal. I like the idea of capturing small happy moments during the day (most likely stemming from the little things)--it takes the pressure off having to be in a "state of happiness," which brings with it a lot of pressure. I'm about to read the Huff Post article as we speak--I hadn't seen it! Can't wait to see your face in a few weeks.