A mind of trees

I recently started reading Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project, which I wanted to read before checking out her latest book, Better Than Before. The latter focuses on positive habit-forming, which is a perennial fascination of mine: I’m basically a sucker for any sort of self-help book that suggests you can improve your life by honing your habits. But I decided to read The Happiness Project before Rubin’s newer book, even though both books arrived at the library at the same time. Now that I’ve started The Happiness Project, I think I’ll return Better Than Before and then re-request it later, as I’m not sure even I could stomach two self-help books in a row.


I’m enjoying The Happiness Project, but I can’t say I’ve learned anything new from the first fifty-some pages: so far, Rubin is revisiting familiar territory. But this is, after all, one of the things that I like about self-help books: they’re easy to read (basically, a guilty pleasure) because they reinforce the things I already know even if they’re things I’m not currently doing.


Reading a self-help book is like watching a workout DVD while lounging on the sofa eating bonbons: everything (including exercise) looks easy when you sit and watch it, but getting up and doing it is a different story. Much of the research Rubin cites in The Happiness Project is stuff I’ve already read: I’ve read classics such as Ben Franklin’s Autobiography and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden along with newer titles such as John M. Gottman’s The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. (Spoiler alert: the latter didn’t save my first marriage, but it did help clarify what was wrong with it.) I’ve also read Martin Seligman’s Authentic Happiness: I did, after all, briefly train to become a life-coach, a career I back-burnered after realizing I’m not good at marketing myself. So the information Rubin shares isn’t exactly new if you’ve read these various works she’s referencing; what she does, though, is offer a new configuration of the same old ideas.

Easter bonnet

What fascinates me so far about The Happiness Project is its central premise that we can be happier if we understand and employ the specific techniques that make people happy. This belief in personal perfectibility–the notion that the human psyche is a machine, and if we understand its inner workings, we can fine-tune it to work better and more efficiently–is pervasive in self-help literature. This belief in personal perfectibility is also quintessentially American, a psychological version of the American dream: “If I work hard enough, I too can make myself into a better, happier person.”


I recognize this optimism as a cultural myth, an idea deconstructed in Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America as well as Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, both of which I loved. (You can read my review of Burkeman here.) But even though I fully understand the cultural mythology and outright error endemic in self-help books, I still find myself consuming them like candy, finding an escapist joy in the irresistible belief that we can make ourselves better. For me, self-help books are like fairy tales for grown-ups, offering the bewitching hope that you can be your own Prince Charming, sweeping yourself off to a happily-ever-after world where your closets are organized, your marriage is blissful, and your body is beautiful, well-rested, and well-toned.

Hat, shades, and scarf

The irony, of course, is that I’m a Buddhist, and Buddhism basically throws a bucket of cold water on self-helpism. Buddhism in general and Zen Buddhism in particular focus on what is, not what could be if only you employed a system of resolutions and self-help strategies. The ultimate statement of “what is” is the Buddha’s First Noble Truth, which bluntly observes that Suffering Exists. Contemplating your messy closets, listless marriage, or sagging body, a self-help guru would whip up an action plan to get your you, your relationships, and your closets back in shape. A Zennie, on the other hand, would commiserate without blame: Yes, sweetheart, it be’s that way sometimes.

In the building

Zen isn’t philosophically opposed to helping yourself; Zen, in fact, isn’t philosophically opposed to much of anything. My Inner Zennie accepts with bemused equanimity the fact that hope really does spring eternal: after all these years of failed attempts, I still hold out hope for getting my junk drawer organized. What my Inner Zennie knows that my Inner Self-Helper is loathe to admit, however, is that happiness isn’t contingent on tidy closets: I can find serenity in a cluttered house, and I can be miserable in a perfectly clean one. My Inner Zennie, in other words, knows that happiness dwells in the Here and Now, regardless of how many things my Inner Self-Helper wants to fix. Samsara is indeed Nirvana, so go ahead and either clean your closets or let them be: it’s your choice. At the end of the day, a Zennie doesn’t ask herself “Are my closets tidy” but “Who am I?”

Backyard koi pond with Kwan Seum Bosal statue

So who am I? The asker of that question has perpetually cluttered closets and an insatiable belief that someday, somehow, they might be tidy. That riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma loves to read books like The Happiness Project while wryly remembering that Ben Franklin, the Founding Father of American optimism, ultimately gave up his quest for personal perfection, noting that whenever he made progress with one of his self-defined virtues, he backslid with the others. As none other than Saint Paul noted, it’s human nature to continue doing that which we know we shouldn’t do, which is precisely why books like Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project will continue to have an enthusiastic audience. We know that life isn’t as simplistic as self-help books suggest, but we still request these books from the library and greedily consume them, errors and all.