Which of the religions of the world gives its followers the greatest happiness? “While it lasts, the religion of worshipping oneself is the best,” C. S. Lewis said in response to this question. “I have an elderly acquaintance of about eighty, who has lived a life of unbroken selfishness and self-admiration from the earliest years, and is, more or less, I regret to say, one of the happiest men I know,” he continued. Lewis, a convert from atheism, did not go to religion to make himself happy: “I always knew a bottle of port would do that,” he said.
In her New York Times best-seller, The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin recounts her yearlong effort to increase her personal happiness, relying on neither port nor Christianity. Rubin, the former editor-in-chief of the Yale Law Journal, Supreme Court law clerk to Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and published author of biographies of Churchill and JFK, is a sober-minded and impressively successful person. In undertaking her yearlong “happiness project,” she deployed her considerable intellect and strong work ethic toward making herself happier. She also wanted to “develop the self-discipline and the mental habits to deal with a bad thing when it happened.” Rubin ominously realized that “one dark night my phone was going to ring.”
You could rightly call her a happiness evangelist. Her blog offers tips and forms for readers to use in starting their own happiness projects. In her book, she details her interaction with a Washington Post writer who had negatively reviewed her biography of JFK. Her friendly reaction to his review helped initiate an amicable relationship with her critic, and she enjoyed meeting him and conversing with him later at a cocktail party. She seems like the kind of person who would be a loyal friend and a fine conversationalist.
Rubin says she has encountered no major tragedies in her life, which she portrays as an enviable one. She came from a happy home, with a father, nicknamed “Smilin’ Jack Craft,” who was “unflaggingly cheerful and enthusiastic.” Her parents are still married to each other, and she herself is happily married with two children. She describes herself as ambitious, competitive, dissatisfied, and fretful, with a perfectionist and worrying nature.
She confessed that working in something like law, finance, or politics made her feel “legitimate,” and she had to overcome that feeling before she could allow herself to leave the law permanently and pursue her passion for writing.
For her yearlong project, she focused on one area of her life to improve each month — marriage, money, work, parenthood, and so on. One month, on vacation with her family, she focused on eternity. She checked out a stack of library books, mainly memoirs of catastrophes including death, paralysis, addiction, and all the rest. She hoped “to benefit from the knowledge that these people had won with so much pain, without undergoing the same ordeals.” She observed that “there are some kinds of profound wisdom that I hope never to gain from my own experience.” She devotes a chapter of her book to eternity and her “contemplation of the heavens.”
This is where a particular irony emerges in her narrative. In this chapter, she describes her lack of much of a religious background and also loosely mentions her current beliefs. She calls herself a “reverent agnostic.” As far as I can tell, this means both that she is worshipful (of what it is not clear) and that she believes that any ultimate reality (such as God) is unknown and probably unknowable. She admits that she is “attracted to belief and through my reading, I enter into the spirit of belief.” She grew up in a non-religious home, attending church only infrequently with her Christian grandparents. Her husband is Jewish, and she terms their household a “mixed one” with even less religion in the home than in their childhood homes. And, though her husband feared her contemplation of the heavens would be tiresome for their family, she forged on.
Research showed her that “spiritual” people were happier and healthier. Embracing “one of the most universal spiritual practices,” Rubin decided to imitate a spiritual master, St. Therese of Liseux. Rubin developed a mini-obsession with St. Therese, purchasing and reading seventeen books about this figure who lived the late nineteenth century. The life of the Little Flower, as St. Therese is known, attracted Rubin because she “wanted to take little steps to be happier as I lived my ordinary life, and that was very much in the spirit of Saint Therese.”
Yet an observation of St. Therese reveals that through the Catholic Church, she dedicated her life to pursing holiness, not happiness. As she wrote, “Martyrdom was the dream of my youth and this dream has grown with me.”
By the time St. Therese died of tuberculosis at age 24, she had experienced much physical and emotional suffering. Her mother died of cancer when St. Therese was four. When St. Therese was nine, her older sister, who had become a de facto mother figure, left to join a convent. On the other hand, as the youngest of nine children (only five of whom survived), St. Therese became accustomed to being pampered and spoiled. She was a tearful, sensitive child. At age fourteen, after reading The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, she had a conversion experience at Christmas upon avoiding a childish reaction when her father declared he would no longer have to provide her with Christmas presents. She realized that she cared more about her father’s feelings than she did about her own.
Soon after her conversion, she followed her older sisters into a convent, where she is said to have led an unremarkable experience. Yet she sought to show her love in the small sacrifices of everyday life. In St. Therese’s words, “Love proves itself by deeds, so how am I to show my love? Great deeds are forbidden me. The only way I can prove my love is by scattering flowers and these flowers are every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love.” Her sisters posthumously circulated her slim autobiography, The Story of a Soul. The book’s overwhelming popularity and her life led the Church to suspend its normal fifty-year delay between death and canonization, and the Church not only canonized St. Therese in 1925, but declared her a Doctor of the Church, one of only three females to hold that title. Therese sought holiness, using everyday actions to consider others greater than herself.
In imitating St. Therese, Rubin derived a Splendid Truth: “One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy. One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.”
Now back to the irony of Rubin’s approach. In her chapter on eternity, Rubin recounts reading The Story of a Soul and imitating St. Therese to become happier. But imagine if, in a book about cooking, the author discussed the impact of Julia Child’s book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and the important lessons it teaches about how to succeed in, say, horticulture. Yes, the author might find that Julia Child was a great gardener and that might even have helped her cooking, but the author would be missing the real point of Julia Child. Similarly, in her chapter on eternity, Rubin looks to St. Therese for happiness tips instead of recognizing that St. Therese’s Christian faith animated her extraordinary skills at making those around her happy.
When the phone inevitably rings with bad news, will happiness tips and checklists be enough, or has Rubin left something out?