“Flirting, Watching Clips from Broadway Shows and Nature Documentaries, and Reminding Myself to ‘Suck It Up and Deal With It Now.'”

Happiness interview: Natasha Vargas-Cooper.

My love for all things Twilight, books and movies, both fascinates and puzzles me. Obedient to my Personal Commandment to “Be Gretchen,” I wear my passion on my sleeve, and so last year, a movie-critic friend emailed me to say, “Hey, I know you love Twilight stuff. You should check out this review.”

I read the attached review of New Moon, and I recently read the review of the new movie Eclipse, and I was blown away by the writing of Natasha Vargas-Cooper and Mary H.K. Choi. This kind of crazy, high-low, jumping style looks playful, but is very, very hard to do well — pyrotechnical effects combined with real insight and analysis. As G.K. Chesterton observed, “It is easy to be heavy; hard to be light.”

I’m a big fan of this writing, but these reviews are crammed with graphic sexual language, curse words, and possibly offensive remarks. So much so that I’m not even going to link to them here, but if you’re curious, and don’t mind that kind of thing — and a fan of the Twilight “Saga” of course — you can look on The Awl where they appeared. Reader, know thyself!

For a broader audience, Natasha has a book that just hit the shelves yesterday, Mad Men Unbuttoned: A Romp Through 1960s America. If you’re a Mad Men fan — and all my favorite people are — you”ll love it. I confess that I’ve only seen three episodes; I’m dying to catch up and join the frenzy, but first, I want to watch every episode of Vampire Diaries, the show my sister is now writing for. (Hmmm…odd vampire theme emerging in this post.) Then, Mad Men. I don’t have much TV time, but this book made me very impatient to get started.

The book is heavily and fabulously illustrated, and highlights intriguing aspects of the Mad Men milieu — topics like Polaroid, Stewardesses, California Cool, Puffing While Pregnant, Suburban Rococo, Cheever Country, just to name a few. But before I read a word, I turned every page to look at the pictures. I love that 60’s look.

I wanted to ask Natasha about her views on happiness.

What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Flirting! It’s the first honest answer that popped into my head and I know that it’s true. I am super naturally good at it!

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Mostly that short cuts to happiness will intensify unhappiness later. Avoiding the yucky awful things like break ups, confrontations, quitting jobs so you can simulate being content will eventually make you miserable. So just “suck it up and deal with it now! You’ll thank me,” is what I would say to 18 year old me.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
I tend to brood. Once I’m in a bad mood I try to stay there. The sad music comes on, I self induce nostalgia, and mope. Tremendous effort goes into moping.

Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)
“Breathe and don’t drink.” I’m not even a drunk! But in the recovery world, this is what people tell themselves when they feel overwhelmed. It’s the simplest axiom, but it saved people’s lives. So if something as complex and overpowering as addiction can be kept in check with that saying, it gives me hope that any issue that comes before me is manageable.

If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost?
Showtunes! I like to find clips from Broadway shows because growing up listening to musicals you could only imagine would it be like to watch Chita Rivera sing a solo but now on Youtube you can see it! You can see the dream!

Is there anything that you see people around you doing or saying that adds a lot to their happiness, or detracts a lot from their happiness?
I’m young so in my cohort the people who I know are miserable are usually angst ridden because they feel overwhelmed by circumstance; Either an awful job or dysfunctional relationship or lack of direction. So they idle, and all their feelings clot into a these big sad blobs. They just congeal, making any movement forward or backward or even lateral too painful to do. Idling is a destroyer.

Have you always felt about the same level of happiness, or have you been through a period when you felt exceptionally happy or unhappy – if so, why? If you were unhappy, how did you become happier?
I am at my most full tilt depressed when I work for some who is a bad leader. Not just bad manager, but a person or group of people in a position of power who don’t know how to lead other people. It makes me act out I spend all of my time making sure that every one around me is also angry. When I’ve have been at my unhappiest is when I’m in that position. I go bonkers.

Do you work on being happier? If so, how?
I spend the last hour of my day watching nature documentaries. I don’t read or TV before I go to bed. This has made me miraculously calmer person. It humbles me and inspires me and always puts ideas into my head so I wake up the next morning feeling good because I went to bed serenely. I think this is how some people feel about prayer? Richard Attenborough is my god!

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?
I thought being alone would make me crazy with unhappiness. I never thought I could steer my life on my own. The notion used to fill me with dread and some days it still does. But in general it’s great! My default is now ‘solo’. I never thought I would enjoy hanging out with me so much. Let me tell you, I am a delight.

* On the subject of writers-I-admire, my friend Amy Wilson’s blog, Mother Load — “musings of a former perfectionist and current mother” — is hilarious and thought-provoking. Her book, When Did I Get Like This?: The Screamer, the Worrier, the Dinosaur-Chicken-Nugget-Buyer, and Other Mothers I Swore I’d Never Be, came out recently, too.

* If you’d like a personalized, signed bookplate to put in your copy of The Happiness Project, email me your name, or someone else’s name, and the address to which I should mail the bookplate, and I’ll send it right off. Feel free to ask for as many as you like. My email is grubin [at] gretchenrubin [.com]. Don’t forget to include your mailing address

  • Andrea

    If she’s that into nature documentaries, then *David* Attenborough is her god, not Richard.

  • I love the interviews that you do. Keep them up!

    She is right about flirting. It definitely gives you a little rush and feels good.

    My current movie passion, perhaps way behind everyone else, is Harry Potter. My eight-year-old son has gotten into them and we are reading the books every morning and night. They are a bit dark but also have bits of wonderful life wisdom.

    I wrote about how the Patronus spell inspired me to deal with crises, negative thoughts and fears. http://www.postcardsfromapeacefuldivorce.com/394/how-to-deal-with-an-impending-breakup-summon-a-patronus/

  • Kathryn

    OMG! This statement:

    I am at my most full tilt depressed when I work for some who is a bad leader. Not just bad manager, but a person or group of people in a position of power who don’t know how to lead other people. It makes me act out I spend all of my time making sure that every one around me is also angry. When I’ve have been at my unhappiest is when I’m in that position. I go bonkers.”

    …is exactly me! I have even put it in terms close to this to my husband (I am in said position now)but I have NEVER heard anyone say they feel the same way…Man it feels good to see that I’m not the only one…(even when rationally of course I knew I couldn’t be)

    • I was thrilled to see that, too! So I guess there are three of us! I don’t act out or try to anger others, but I just want to leap in and FIX THINGS. I become very critical and negative. I just quit a job largely due to this and I am SO MUCH happier!

  • it makes me happy when ………. people express how they feel, decisively. not in a way that is rude and hurtful and/ or insulting to those around them. they are just about themselves, in a good way. they do not need to trash others to make themselves feel good.

    Natasha Vargas-Cooper has this vibe. I love it.

    bestwishesmarie.blogspot.com

  • Kate

    Nature documentaries makes you calmer?
    When you say flirting is the activity that makes you happier, doesn’t it make you too dependent on the outside and having new people around you? Do they have to be men? In any case, you might be interested in a discussion on How to flirt:
    http://www.pandalous.com/topic/how_to_flirt

  • Stephanie

    This was a delight. I agree with another commenter who admired the interviewee’s directness. That said, I can’t imagine enjoying flirtation. It’s pretty much my least favourite thing in the world! It feels so…inauthentic. But let me tell you that I, too, am a delight. 😉

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  • openfan

    The only man I love to flirt right now with is my boyfriend. I don’t know if it counts as flirting or not. I personally don’t think flirting around can be satisfying in a long run. It always leads to troubles for me.

  • openfan

    Grechen, are you overwhelmed by the four book clubs you are in? If not, I am eager to hear you share your time management tips.

    • gretchenrubin

      I’m often asked that question! The answer is NO.

      Here’s the thing: it actually saves time. It may sound calculating, but
      being in these groups is a very efficient way to strengthen friendships and
      make new friends. I couldn’t possibly be emailing, meeting for coffee, etc.
      with all the people in these groups — plus, it just wouldn’t happen. We
      wouldn’t do it. And we wouldn’t become friends.

      But because we’re meeting around a common passion, we have a lot to say to
      each other. Making plans is easy. I see the people consistently. And we all
      become friends with each other, and a social network is easier and more fun
      to maintain than one-off friends, which are a lot of work.

      I work by myself all day long, so it really makes me happy to have a chance
      to see people.

      Aside from the friend aspect, my favorite thing to do is to read and to talk
      about books. I eagerly look forward to all of these meetings.

      • openfan

        Very inspirational. It makes me wanna join a book club now!

  • LivewithFlair

    I love when she says there are no “short cuts” to happiness! I watched this amazing interview on PBS this morning about families still trying to rebuild their lives after Hurricane Katrina. One woman said that she uses the manure of her life to fertilize her hope. I wondered if the manure in our lives is a necessary component of a fertile life. You can’t use shortcuts when you want to grow something great. http://livewithflair.blogspot.com/

  • superflatiron

    I don’t read or TV before I go to bed.

  • Carmen

    “I’m young so in my cohort the people who I know are miserable are usually angst ridden because they feel overwhelmed by circumstance; Either an awful job or dysfunctional relationship or lack of direction. So they idle, and all their feelings clot into a these big sad blobs. They just congeal, making any movement forward or backward or even lateral too painful to do. Idling is a destroyer.”

    This is brilliant. I know alot of congealing people, and I don’t want to be one of them!!

  • Carol

    I’m RETIRED! I read your book before taking the leap. It was an antidote to my jitters. I created my own blog about the transiton into working freedom. Read it at http://silverstep63.blogspot.com/
    Carol

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