“I Thought That If I Wasn’t Happy, Given All My Good Fortune in Life, That There Was Something Wrong with Me.”

Happiness interview: Phoebe Potts.

Ever since I read Scott McCloud’s brilliant Making Comics, I’ve been intrigued with the possibilities of the graphic novel. One of my overarching intellectual interests is — how can the structure of information be shaped to help people understand and learn? There’s a lot that a graphic novel can do that a text novel can’t (and vice versa, of course).

So I was very interested to get my hands on Phoebe Potts’s new memoir, Good Eggs. I read it in one day.

Good Eggs is about Phoebe and Jeff’s struggles with infertility, but it’s also about their marriage — they have a wonderful marriage — and Phoebe’s depression, and her family, and her exploration of her religious heritage. It covers a lot of subjects, very succinctly and powerfully — and it’s also very funny.

Happiness is one of the big undercurrents of the book, so I was curious to hear Phoebe address the subject explicitly.

What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Digging holes in the yard. To the casual observer, it looks like I’m gardening, which isn’t incorrect as I do eventually harvest produce as part of this activity. But really I just like digging holes.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
At 18, I thought that if I wasn’t happy, given all my good fortune in life, that there was something wrong with me. I would feel ashamed that I was not more grateful. Now I know that happiness is one feeling from an expansive palette of emotions. And that experiencing all of them as they happen, however painful some of them can be, makes happiness so much sweeter when it comes back around. I mean, now I can recognize the real thing.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Contrary to my answer to #2, I do anesthetize myself from difficult feelings by consuming large amounts of sugar. Sometimes I imagine all the M&M’s I’ve eaten, and that the number of dump trucks they could fill would circle the equator twice. The weight gain and general malaise that follows the sugar binges leaves me far from happy.

Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful? Or a particular book that has stayed with you?
I had a book of Carl Sandburg’s poetry when I was a kid with these great pen and ink line drawings. There was a poem called “Happiness,” where he asked masters of the universe for the key to contentment, people who ran huge factories, and they didn’t know. Then one Saturday he sees an immigrant family on the shores of the river in Chicago, playing accordion, dancing and generally goofing off. He doesn’t have to say that he found happiness, at that point it’s obvious. I don’t think those same immigrants were happy all week long in one of the bosses’ factories of course, but it seemed like the combination of food, music, nature and close relations coming together in an afternoon fat with space and time would equal happiness.

If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost? Or, like a “comfort food,” do you have a comfort activity? (mine is reading children’s books).
Making sure to take my Zoloft. Being near, or preferably in, the ocean with my husband. Looking at animals.

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?
When people sing together, they seem to be really happy. I’ve seen this at a Red Sox game, at my local synagogue, in the Gospel tent at JazzFest in New Orleans. I teach kids part-time and I notice that when they are not heard they are unhappy. The quickest way to see relief and pleasure wash over their faces is to ask them something and listen, really listen, to their answers.

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 was exceptionally unhappy and considering suicide when I was 25. It was the first time in my life I had stopped moving long enough for all the feelings I had left unfelt to catch up with me, like a 10 car pile-up on the highway. I became happier by asking for help to learn to be myself. I was advised to use the time-worn regimen of therapy, exercise and anti-depressants. But these three practices alone would not have worked had it not been for the constant, if meshugenah, love of my family and a few choice friends. Once I had effectively chosen life, MY life, I could lift my chin up off my chest, and that’s when I saw my future husband. Being married to Jeff is the cornerstone of my happiness today.

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?
I just came out with my first book, a comic book memoir called Good Eggs. I worked on it happily in obscurity for three years. When the book launch finally came, I thought I would really like the “public” in publication. And while I am deeply grateful for the folks who respond positively to the book, getting attention in public isn’t nearly as satisfying as drawing and writing all day. Getting paid to draw little pictures at home, stopping only to dig holes in the yard or hanging out with Jeff, that’s what makes me happy.

* Readers interested in the subject of infertility should also check out the great blog, Starfish Envy.

* Speaking of comics and graphic novels, if you’d like a copy of my adventure in comic-making, “Gretchen Rubin and the Quest for a Passion,” email me at grubin at gretchenrubin dot com. Just write “comic” in the subject line.

  • Just wanted to stop by and say how much I enjoy these interviews that you feature. Thanks so much for the daily encouragement that your writing provides!

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks! I’m so happy to hear that.

      • Sickandtired32

        There is no disagree or not like button. I highly disagree for many reasons. I wish someone would investigate people other than the “norm”. Old, young, hospice, nursing homes, etc. The above actually is funny now even though it was not when I was of the average or normal status in life.

  • Heather Whistler

    Great interview, and it sounds like a really cool book! I, too, tried to use food to numb out my feelings — it didn’t work very well, and I’m glad Ms. Potts has other ways to cope. I just wrote a new post about my history with binge eating/relapse: http://bit.ly/cZVVyr Feel free to check it out if you have a chance!

  • BerniceWood

    I really like a couple of statements that were made.
    First is that you learned to understand and appreciate all the emotions that are part of the spectrum and that helps you appreciate happiness all the more.
    Secondly, I love the way you phrased about your depression. “It was the first time in my life I had stopped moving long enough for all the feelings I had left unfelt to catch up with me, like a 10 car pile-up on the highway.”
    I have been suffering with low level depression for years and for the past 2 years worked at an incredibly stressful job where I totally burned out. And this is exactly how I felt. Once I actually crashed, all those emotions and feelings I had been stuffing have been catching up to me. I am only now starting to feel a little better (after being on medical leave for 4 months) I am on that same trio, exercies, therapy and medication!
    Thank you for sharing this interview!

  • Jacqueline Johns

    I’d like to see the depressed of this world swap their medication for meditation. It is one of the most happiness-inducing activities you could possibly undertake. The benefits to mind, body and soul are numerous, AND it makes you a nicer person.

    If everyone meditated regularly, what a different world we would inhabit.

    Live Life Happy!

    • Dkbp73

      Oh Jacqueline, bless your simple little heart. You’ve obviously no experience with depression – I mean heart wrenching, mind numbing, physically debilitating depression induced by a chemical imbalance. Do you really think thoughts of suicide could be banished by sitting cross-legged on a pretty pillow saying “Om” for 20 minutes every day? And, if so, don’t you think those of us hopped up on meds would gladly do it? I’m sure you mean well, but your comment was basically like hearing yet another doctor tell me it’s all in my head…so thanks.

    • Amelia Bedelia

      Some of us do both. And for some of us, skipping either has very serious consequences.

      Meditation, yoga, running, close relationships, good music, good food, meaningful work, cognitive behavioral therapy, high-quality self-help books like Gretchen’s… the cornerstone of this regimen is my Zoloft. Without it, everything else falls apart.

      I truly hope I will be able to stop taking it one day. (And I believe the regimen listed above will be a significant help in reaching that goal.) But right now, I- and many others like me- absolutely must take it to have a chance at a full life.

      I obviously can’t speak for Ms. Potts, but perhaps she meant less that Zoloft actually boosts her happiness and more that it provides a platform on which she can actually be happy? Without it, there is no chance for happiness, and therefore it is one of the most important things she can do in order to be happy? I know that is true for me. I agree that theoretically, it’s not ideal. I wish it weren’t the case. But that’s life, at least for me right now.

      I agree that meditation is an extremely powerful tool not just against depression, but at living a full and happy life. It’s not for everyone though, and it’s equally not the only path to that, hard as it may be for me to understand that. I have a tendency to believe that what makes a significant impact in my life will do the same for everyone, but that’s just not true. I don’t know what will make a difference in people’s lives, and I have to let others figure that out for themselves. It’s really hard for me, and I struggle with it. But then I just remember that I have enough to worry about when I focus on myself, and that well as I may think I manage my life, it’s not nearly well enough that I can claim authority to manage others as well. 🙂

    • Debradylan

      I don’t see depression treatment as having to chose one thing over another. We need many tools – and meditation is a good one. Some of us need more, and different kinds of help, than others.

  • I think Phoebe could be, if not a long lost sister, a distant cousin. Sugar, looking at animals, the ocean, group singing, suicide. I share many parallels with her, including the egg thing. I have an e-book on my site called The Good Egg Manifesto. What a kick!

    Wonderful interview. Phoebe, best of luck with memoir sales!!

  • These interviews are always interesting.

    I’m not sure that I agree about “making sure to take my Zoloft” as a “happiness boost.” I’m not against antidepressants for true clinical depression, but they’re hardly a way to increase happiness. Thousands of people are given a prescription for antidepressants, not for true depression, but to treat the normal blues that accompany dealing with life. Besides, they don’t work instantaneously, so saying they give a “happiness boost” isn’t even based in science.

    • gretchenrubin

      One of the main themes of Phoebe’s book is how she grappled with her
      depression. If you’re interested in this, I urge you to read what she wrote
      there — much more developed than her necessarily short answer here.

      • Just to clarify, I wasn’t bashing anyone for using antidepressants to treat depression. I just thought it was odd to use it as an example of a happiness boost. I wouldn’t want anyone to think that they are magic pills that will instantly make you feel better.

        I’m glad she was able to break through her depression. Living with a mood or anxiety disorder is no walk in the park.

    • Debradylan

      Taking an anti-depressant on a regular, steady basis is very important. Even if I’m 12 hours late in taking a dose, I start experiencing unpleasant physical and mental side-effects. Dedication to this med is crucial. It is one tool in a toolbox of many tools that helps & gives the patient a fighting chance.

  • Ginger

    It may seem strange, but I was happy to see “take my Zoloft” as one of the things you do as a comfort activity. I have struggled with derpession most of my life and since I got help and the medications I’ve needed, it certainly has changed a lot. Supporting yourself sometimes means admitting you can’t do it all alone. Depression is more than just unhappiness and in many cases, medication is needed to help support your wellness.

    I appreciate the honesty.

  • peachy

    I enjoyed Phoebe’s comments until I hit – like hitting a concrete wall – the sentence, “Being married to Jeff is the cornerstone of my happiness today.” I don’t begrudge her the comment AT ALL; nor do I doubt the depth of emotion and contentment behind it. Just the opposite. I, too, had a “cornerstone of happiness” which was my husband of 20 years. Every day there was laughter and a deep sense of “being seen and known.” And then, literally one day, he said he “no longer wanted to be a husband or a father” and he left. That was (I’m embarrassed to write) 8 YEARS AGO and even with therapy, anti-depressants (my first), wonderful children, 2 glorious catty cats, and good health…I’m (embarrassed again to write this) so sad because MY CORNERSTONE IS GONE. If ANYONE has a positive suggestion for creating a genuinely, authentically happy life ALONE (I have no family and all my friends are married; I realize I sound as if I’m whining, but it’s true) PLEASE tell me what your tips are. I have an open mind and a willing heart…but nothing I’ve tried (including uber volunteering – I’m a hospice volunteer and do hospital chaplaincy, both of which greatly add to my mental health) has “worked.” I am grateful for any positive suggestions anyone can offer. Thanks so much.

    • Debradylan

      Peachy, I’m so sorry for the trauma and upheaval to your life. While my life as a divorced bachelor girl wasn’t all roses, it was a wonderful rebirth. These are things that worked for me:
      I became a regular at certain restaurants/pubs (being a regular will greatly increase your circle of aquaintences & will lead to some good friends);
      I discovered the local music scene & became a regular at certain bands’ shows;
      I attended many special events at my local library, which allowed me to explore (for free!) new things like opera – of which I am now a big fan;
      I attended my first ballet and loved it;
      I started taking tai chi lessons & this has given me so much;
      It’s good to part of a class, club or group;
      I read – ALOT;
      I became the owner of 3 cockatiels & learned everything I could about them – this has been wonderous-I can’t imagine my life without them;
      I accept all invitations (yep, even attending someone’s church function – which is very unlike me);
      Spend more time outdoors;
      This will sound strange, but I started attending a drum circle & this opened doors to studying African rythems, learning to hoop dance (yep, you read that right – and I love it). I’m also interested in poi (even the non-fire just glowing kind, but I haven’t tried it yet.)
      Look up local clubs on meetup.com. Even if you don’t participate in one, you will get ideas about how to spend your time.
      I tried canoeing and kayaking for the first time & love it!
      I had the freedom to persue a less stressful (and lower paying) occupation;
      After almost a year on Yahoo Personals, I met my sweetheart.
      Good luck to you. Don’t give up.

      • peachy

        Dear Debradylan ~ (and Gretchen)
        Thank you both for your kind responses. Debra, your suggestions are WONDERFUL – we must be kindred spirits, some of what you wrote I’ve already done (2 kitties, not cockatiels – definitely same idea and outcome, though!) But many of your other suggestions – drum circle, meetup, sticking with an on-line dating service (I opted out probably too soon, because my dates were HORRID – however, they were genuinely funny in hindsite…:) I’m not sure what hoop dancing is…but I just might look it up! Anyway, I’m grateful for your kindness in reaching out. I am uplifted in this day to have had your thoughtful suggestions. Thank you.

        • Debradylan

          Ha! Online dating is a mixed bag, but you’ll always get a good story out of it! Before I met my sweetheart, I did make 1 friend on Yahoo Personals. We weren’t romantically interested in each other, but we had fun meeting for beers, Americana music concerts, etc. He was an intersting person & very different from me. I’m glad I met him. I met my sweetheart with only 3 weeks left to my subscription!

          Hoop dancing is hula-hooping with an adult sized/weighted hoop, that includes tricks and dance-like movements. I’m enthralled by it. I’m also attracked to the zen-like quality it has. I hope to bring tai chi to the hoop.

          Meetup.com is terrific. That’s where I found the drum circle. (And I’m not a new-agey kind of person. But the circle has been enlightening.)

          I also have a cheezy plastic ukulele I keep meaning to learn to play.

          I can’t say good things about tai chi & my amazing instructor. I don’t want to remember what life was life before I discovered this.

          Also, while sometimes annoying, Facebook has led to many nice and unexpected things – like being interviewed for a documentary, all kinds of personal support, new books & movies, etc. All kinds of inspiration. Feel free to add me as a friend.

          If you enjoy writing, write something and submit it to a local paper/magazine. This changed my life dramatically and I met lots of new people. I even stepped out of my comfort zone and wrote a comedy piece for a local women’s magazine about going back to school as an “older” student.

          Also, keeping a regular journal at opendiary.com has been a lifeline at times. I’ve never been successful at keeping a journal until now. I like that I can access it from any computer. It’s free and has a privacy option. It’s been a way for me to cope with chronic back pain and depression, plus blowing off steam, and recording good times. Seriously, there is power in journaling. You will notice patterns that will motivate you to do better.

          • Debradylan

            **can’t say ENOUGH good things about tai chi**

  • peachy

    One more thing: My wonderful therapist strongly suggested that I begin anti-depressant therapy along with exercise, meditation, volunteering, positive cognitive feedback therapy…which I did, and it has definitely helped. As someone else wrote, it has given me “a platform” upon which to rebuild my life. I am grateful for appropriate medications when we need them. But – PLEASE – if anyone has other suggestions that have actually worked for them for building a HAPPY life alone when their “cornerstone” is gone (and no one is stepping up to be the “NEW, IMPROVED CORNERSTONE!”) I would appreciate hearing your suggestions. Peace and all good things to you.

    • gretchenrubin

      What a tough time you’ve had. Sounds like you’ve done everything you can to
      make yourself as happy as possible in a challenging situation. This isn’t
      something I’ve had experience with — what do others suggest? hang in there!

  • Debradylan

    A very thoughtful and honest interview. Really enjoyed it.