On clear summer afternoons, she would sit out in the porch with a bowl of soap solution and a slender glass tube and endlessly blow bubbles.
The exquisitely fragile creations, some as large as a pomelo, and some as small as a tear drop, would quiver daintily at the edge of the tube for a few seconds and then gently disengage themselves to float away into the sunshine, dazzling in their iridescence. And then with a soundless pop, vanish. Every time a bubble burst, she felt a surge of happiness flood her heart. "So impermanent, so beautiful, so unforgettable," she would sigh.
For people looking for everyday philosophical gems that upend traditionally held notions of what happiness is, this one, from a friend of mine, is a collectible. She is, understandably, in a minority. Most people would tell you that there nothing to feel happy about a bubble that has burst. Having said that, isn't life also about how you wish to view it? Yes, that classic chestnut about the glass being half full or half empty is not a mothball in disguise.
In the last decade, science has deigned to turn its attention to subjects that at one time were considered to have the intellectual heft of the Great Indian Rope Trick. So it is that the subject of happiness is the new lab rat. Concurrently, and perhaps due to it, a slew of books on happiness have been scaling up the bestseller lists.
There are books by university professors, new-age gurus, life coaches, management mavens and from everyday men and women who chased happiness down the emotional highway, caught up with it and shook hands.
One individual of the latter tribe is Gretchen Rubin, the New York-based author of the bestselling The Happiness Project, who gave up a career in law to pursue writing.
The book enjoyed a long stay atop the New York Times' bestseller lists in 2010. As a happy fallout of her smash-hit effort, Rubin launched The Happiness Project as a participative exercise that today has millions signed up, sharing their experiences and urging others to have a go at it. Her blog, The Happiness Project, enjoys, in her own words, "a gigantic readership".
That Rubin is deeply dedicated to the exploration of happiness is evident in her email conversation — many of her sentences end with an exclamation! But she is not a unique individual, she says. On the contrary, she is just another typical person who did not have any reason to be unhappy to begin with. As she puts it: "One day, I was travelling in a city bus when I had a sudden realisation — I was in danger of wasting my life."
By her own admission, she lacked nothing: "I wasn't depressed… wasn't having a midlife crisis... wasn't divorced. I didn't have to forgive any terrible wrongs. [In fact] I was pretty happy."
And here is the rub: most people who are chasing happiness are in a similar predicament, sort of. Despite being fortunate enough to have failed the audition for a crushingly sad life-script, they still go about with a woebegone look, looking for missing links. Rubin caught herself doing the same. "In that single moment, with that realisation, I decided to dedicate a year to trying to be happier. ‘I'll start a happiness project,' I vowed. I did."
Rubin's year-long experiment with this warm and fuzzy feeling helped her arrive at some interesting conclusions. The biggest obstacle to happiness, she realised, was… herself. "[It was about recognising] my failings, my limitations. It was time to expect more from myself."
This is not as scary as it sounds. What she means by expecting more from herself is to do the things that we all can but don't. Like appreciating the beautiful things we have in our lives already; the key word is ‘already'. The other important key to happiness is to stop complaining. "I wanted to behave better," says Rubin.
At the end of a year, Rubin was happier. There was no thunderbolt heralding electric and happy times, just a quiet inner shift. "It mostly happens inside," she says.
Small but important
So what's the distillate? Rubin says she dislikes being reductive to the point of just offering a list — it's too simplistic — but she swears by the power of making small but important changes in everyday life; exercise, a proper diet, keeping a distance from the things that annoy you, connecting deeply with those you love, appreciating nature... Rubin's conclusions are comfortingly familiar.
Which brings us to the most baffling question of all: If all it takes to feel happier is to do things which we are capable of, why don't we do them? "It's like dieting," explains Rubin. "We all know the secret to it: eat better, eat less, exercise more. It's the application of it that's the challenge." The same goes for happiness.
The trick to understanding and processing ideas for Rubin, and many like her, is to understand the fundamental truth about life as stated by Alfred North Whitehead, English mathematician and philosopher: "Everything important has been said before." The oldest truths are the newest realities. It all depends on whether you want to see it that way or not. You could blow beautiful soap bubbles and weep when they burst or you sit back and enjoy their spectacular beauty while it lasts.