Gretchen Rubin’s bestselling book ‘The Happiness Project’ describes her year-long happiness project. She took an approach inspired by Benjamin Franklin’s Virtues Chart where she identified areas of her life she wanted to work on and set concrete and measurable happiness-boosting resolutions.
These were compiled into a chart, where she scored herself every day. For example, broad areas of her life included energy, love, play or friendship, and the resolutions for energy were: go to sleep earlier, exercise better, tackle a nagging task and act more energetic.
Resolutions and goal setting
As a decidedly bookish person several of Rubin’s goals focussed around reading and writing, such as the resolutions to write a blog entry every day, make time for reading, self-published a book, read memoirs and keep a gratitude journal.
Write a novel
In September she decided to pursue a passion and for her this involved writing a novel – in a month. She followed the advice from a book called ‘No Plot, No Problem!’ written by Chris Baty who started National Novel Writing Month which is commonly known by its acronym Nanowrimo.
Rubin’s goal – the same as for Nanowrimo – was to write 50,000 in 30 days (as many words as are in ‘Catcher in the Rye’ or ‘The Great Gatsby’). This breaks down into 1,667 words a day. The idea is that you don’t prepare or plot out your novel, you just write every single day to hit your word count – no editing, no criticising, just writing.
From my research I found that writers’ biggest barriers to writing are lack of time and lack of discipline. Rubin says: “Writing the novel was a lot of work, but I had less trouble squeezing the writing into my day than I had expected.”
The difficulty of keeping going
Her problem was not finding the time, instead. “After the first ten days, I ran into a problem: I’d reached the end of my plot… I’d already written most of the story before I’d hit even 25,000 words.” My research into writers’ habits found that writers found it most difficult to keep going. Having both an external goal and the internal motivation to achieve it makes a huge difference. Rubin took advice from Baty’s book which promised that she wouldn’t have trouble coming up with more story. So she kept writing. “Each day, one way or another, I managed to eke out the minimum word requirement.” By the end of the month, she typed the last sentence followed by the THE END and tallied her word count at 50,163.
“The boot camp approach gave me a sense of creative freedom… when I had the uncontrollable urge to write a novel – I could just sit down and do it.”
Achievement, Satisfaction and Happiness
So what did Rubin do with her novel? Nothing! She resisted the urge to edit it, she didn’t even reread it. She was successful in meeting her goal and found the experience fun and liberating because it freed her from her internal critic.
Reflecting on her achievement Rubin asked whether it made her happy, “It sure did.” She found that tackling such a big project gave her a substantial boost in happiness; it contributed to the atmosphere of growth in her life and she was thrilled by what she could accomplish in a short time, saying: “The satisfaction gained from the achievement of a large undertaking is one of the most substantial that life affords.”
Happy-making writing projects
Rubin believes that everyone’s happiness project will be different, and she provides guides on her website to start you own. I know that many practising writers would find the idea of writing a novel in 30 days a real burden, especially if they are already part way through writing or rewriting a novel. I do think that we could all do with a happy-making writing project – Rubin suggests following Scott McCloud’s exercise The 24-Hour Comic.
On Sunday I wrote a story for my niece’s birthday – in under two hours I produced a short story of 2,500 words. That definitely made me happy, but was nothing compared to the joy of hearing her laugh as she read it. I might have a go at illustrating a poem or short story next, or making a book – I’m very much inspired by the wonderful bookmaker Rachel Hazell.