Happiness & the Joy of Undertaking a Big Project

Colored pencils lined up in rainbow order.

My First Splendid Truth holds that to think about being happier, you must consider feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth. I’ve become increasingly convinced that the atmosphere of growth is far more important than generally recognized.

Studies show that novelty and challenge—though they can make us uncomfortable, frustrated, uneasy, etc.—are keys to happiness. People who have novel experiences are happier than those who stay in a rut. Also, people are very sensitive to change in their circumstances, whether in a positive or negative direction. Therefore, a feeling of progress, improvement, and learning makes us happier.

I’ve been looking for more ways to bring “an atmosphere of growth” into my life. Children provide it, of course. Also, my blog is a major source of growth for me (also frustration, anxiety, etc.).

And today, a friend and I took the first big step in a BIG project we’re doing together. This multi-stage undertaking will contribute enormously to my atmosphere of growth.

We’ve been planning for months, and the planning has been fun, but I was starting to develop Beginner’s Dread about actually starting. But this afternoon we got underway, and it’s going to be SO TERRIFIC. It’s already a source of joy, and it’s going to keep going for months.

Along with novelty, challenge, and growth, this project combines many resolutions: “Spend time with friends,” “Show up,” “Indulge in a modest splurge,” “Read at whim,” “Appreciate the seasons and this time of life,” and most importantly, “Be Gretchen.”

The inspiration for this project? A while back, I was reading a biograpy of writer J.M. Barrie, J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys (Barrie is best known for writing Peter Pan). It made brief mention of a book made by J. M. Barrie using photographs of the four Llewelyn boys he adored. He took photographs of the boys during one summer, then created a story out of the pictures called The Boy Castaways of Black Lake Island.

He made one copy for himself, and one copy for the Llewelyn family, but the boys’ father left their copy on the train, so only one copy of this book exists.

I noticed that this one copy happened to be in Beinecke Library, the rare books library at Yale, where I went to college and law school. I needed to go up to New Haven for some reason, so I stopped by the library to see the book (keeping my happiness-project resolution to “Force myself to wander”).

I was blown away by this book. I LOVED it. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before. Absolutely marvelous, a whole new way of telling a story and keeping a photo album – and Barrie is an extraordinary writer. I’m continually haunted by the opening line: “We set out to be wrecked.”

Rarely have I wanted to own something so badly – and I discovered that I could order a copy. The library had made a digital image of every page. So I bought myself a copy of every page.

To my great good fortune, I have a friend who immediately realized the brilliance of The Boy Castaways and who was as enthusiastic about it as I was.

Tomorrow I’ll describe our own Boy Castaways project. It’s so fabulous.



Like what you see? Explore more about this topic.

Interested in happiness, habits, and human nature?

Sign up for our weekly newsletter “5 things making me happy”.

Subscribe to Gretchen’s newsletter.

Every Friday, Gretchen Rubin shares 5 things that are making her happier, asks readers and listeners questions, and includes exclusive updates and behind-the-scenes material.