Can You Learn about Happiness from Virginia Woolf? I Think So.

Assay: Yesterday, I posted a quotation from Virginia Woolf for my weekly quotation. I often quote from Woolf, because she’s one of my very favorite writers.

And, as has happened before, I got a few comments from readers saying, in effect, “Why are you quoting Virginia Woolf about happiness? She committed suicide — what can she know about happiness?”

This response always surprises me, for a few reasons. First, Woolf aside, there’s a big difference between writers’ works and what they personally experience and how they behave in their own lives. Tolstoy, for example. I love Tolstoy’s fiction, and find it elevating and very illuminating on the subject of happiness, but I can’t bear to read about the actual Leo Tolstoy, who was a dreadful person.

Nevertheless, suffering “madness” (as Woolf’s nephew and biographer Quentin Bell called it), or depression, or deep unhappiness, may cause us to plumb more deeply into the nature of happiness. There are some kinds of wisdom that we wouldn’t wish to learn, but learn we do. So it’s not surprising to me that Woolf writes with tremendous perception and beauty about happiness. And not just in her fiction — in her diaries, when she’s writing about her own life, she often describes being very happy.

I suppose that for me, what’s most striking about Woolf’s writing is its intensity: how powerfully she can capture a moment’s sensation, a fleeting impression, an evanescent emotion that passes between two people. I’d be very sorry to think that people would dismiss her work, because they believed that her suicide somehow undermined its truth.

I love Virginia Woolf’s writing so much that I almost can’t stand to read it. Has this ever happened to you?

* I loved seeing the pictures of the beautiful, strange Gardens of Marqueyssac.

* Volunteer as a Super-Fan, and from time to time, I’ll ask for your help. Nothing too onerous — I promise

  • Jennifer

    I feel exactly the same way about Virginia Woolf’s writing. I find her words heart wrenchingly beautiful.

  • Rachel Jean

    I think some of the comments and distaste towards people who have committed suicide stems from a lack of understanding of mental illnesses–depression, anxiety and the like. These diseases often onset later in life (especially in women), and they can derail people who would otherwise be happy. My cousin died at 21 from suicide. He was popular, well-liked, in a healthy relationship, etc., but none of us recognized the signs of his increasing depression until it was too late. I wish more people would learn about these illnesses, since 1 in 4 people suffer from some sort of mental health issue in a given year. Mental health is just as important as physical health, and even people with serious mental health disabilities can still experience happiness.

  • Jc

    Hi Gretchen
    Have you read Hermione Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf? I’ve just finished it. At 800 pages it’s taken me a while, but I experienced such wonderful moments of recognition and flashes of insight, I would really recommend it. VW has been one of my latest obsessions. Your description of books from the library, books from Amazon, made me laugh. This biography was one of a collection I built up when this obsession struck… Previously it was learning how to sew..
    A reader in London
    ps I have been to Marqueyssac. Actually, the view from the gardens is even better than the gardens themselves.

    • gretchenrubin

      I love the Lee biography, too.

  • Mairsydoats

    Thank you, Gretchen, for putting words to my thoughts.  It’s tragic enough that Virginia Woolf couldn’t find her way back from the darkness, but then to disregard her writing (0r a portion of it) because of that – doubly tragic.

  • emd04

    I totally agree. Her writing, especially Mrs. Dalloway and The Waves, is full of the idea that we must be fully engaged in the moment, to treasure what we have, as we’re having it. She loved life, but in the end, it was almost too much for her. Who knows what she would have done if WWII hadn’t started.

  • Peninith1

    I think we are encouraged to sum people in general up on the basis of one thing (he was elected President–I bet that’s the most any of us could say about Benjamin Harrison or James Knox Polk!) and that one scary, shocking fact “she committed suicide” is allowed to sum up far, far too many lives. In our own recent history, the brilliant and hilariously funny writer David Foster Wallace risks having us view his work always through that lens–what happened at the last moment. But how much of those lives never were lived in contemplation of the dark hour that brought the end. Similarly, criminals are more than the worst deeds they ever committed. It’s convenient to be reductive, but shuts us out from the richness of many lives. Woolf’s writing truly can be ‘unbearably’ incandescent. But wonderful.

    • Leslie

      This is so true.

  • kathy b

    You are very very clear in your writings about happiness and depression.  I noted this tone  in your book, which I JUST finished, that Depression is an entirely different beast than sadness.  People who live with Depression also live with Happiness. The good news is: depression is almost always curable.  

  • Lisa

    When I read the quote yesterday about Virginia Woolfe getting happiness from “going to my dressmaker in Judd Street, or rather thinking of a dress I could get her to make, & imagining it made,” it seemed to me a somewhat shallow thing to get happiness from, although of course happiness can sometimes come from little things.

    While I can understand getting happiness from planning a new dress, it isn’t a usually a deeper source of happiness as we usually think of it, such as the feeling one gets upon being reunited with a loved one, or bringing joy to a child, or accomplishing a challenging goal one has worked toward for years.

     I think it is OK to be reminded that Virginia Woolfe committeed suicide in the end.  That may mean nothing about whether her ideas about happiness were valid, or it might be a clue that she was missing something deeper at times in her life, and it may have cost her life in the end. 

    While commenters are quick to point out that her suicide may mean nothing about the validity of all that went before in Woolf’s life, which is certainly true, suicide is not always independent of our life choices or predetermined by biology; in fact, it rarely is.

    Our thoughts make a profound difference for good or ill.  Overly self-critical thoughts can be deady, for example.  We must have the courage to  face the truth about these things. 

    • Peninith1

      Oh, I thought it was marvellous to discover that a writer of such depth and seriousness could be, like me, entranced and made happy by the whole process of choosing, designing and fitting a new dress–as a lifelong ‘bluestocking’ I have always hated it that people sometimes forget that very intelligent women also greatly ‘enjoy being a girl’!!! And happiness, I have found, really does come in the small things, a flower, a butterfly, a scent, a pretty dress, a delightful recipe . . .

    • gretchenrubin

      Oh, I certainly didn’t mean to give the impression that that was the only
      kind of thing she got happiness from. I included this because it shows how
      she is thinking of even the smallest things, and how they contribute to
      happiness. Usually she is writing on a much larger scale!

  • Sherie

    I think that the things that touch my heart the most can often be hard to read because they make me feel so much, which can be exhausting.  Mostly though, I find the books I love the most hard to read because I always love the books that, for me, are a little harder to get through.  I love books that I learn from.  They make me think and often can’t be picked up as a distraction, or when I’m tired.  On the other hand, some of my favorite reads are the fun ones that I see myself in, and can learn from, that keep me smiling. 

     I stopped by your blog because one of my sisters sent me your book The Happiness Project.  She said that it reminded her of me.  I am about halfway done and have spent a lot of time smiling, and seeing things that I can do to be even happier.  I am flattered that your book reminded my sister of me and I wanted to thank you for not just thinking of the project, and putting lots of work into it, but for taking the time to share it.  Happiness is a good thing to spread around.

  • Triciafitz2008

    Gretchen, I loved yesterday’s post.  I’ve been thinking about it since I read it yesterday. I did think for a fleeting moment about Woolf’s suicide, but the vividness of her imagery is what stood out for me. I loved the imagery of stringing together moments of happiness in a day as pearls on a string.  Excellent choice of a Sunday post.

    • gretchenrubin

      Ok, I just CANNOT resist quoting this as well…building on the idea of
      things clinging, being brought up…from another extraordinary writer,
      Marilynne Robinson, in HOUSEKEEPING:

      Even now I always imagine her leaning from the low side of some small boat,
      dropping her net through the spumy billows of the upper air. Her net would
      sweep the turning world unremarked as a wind in the grass, and when she
      began to pull it in, perhaps in a pell-mell ascension of formal gentlemen
      and thin pigs and old women and odd socks that would astonish this lower
      world, she would gather the net, so easily, until the very burden itself lay
      all in a heap just under the surface one last pull of measureless power and
      ease would spill her catch into the boat, gasping and amazed, gleaming
      rainbows in the rarer light.
      Such a net, such a harvest, would put an end to all anomaly.

  • Being depressed doesn’t mean you cannot experience happiness. In fact, depression can make happiness feel sweeter.

  • Kelley

    Heavens, I know exactly how you feel about loving her work so much that you can barely stand it! A reviewer once wrote something along the lines that she wrote about the things for which we have no words. That somehow sums up how I feel about her work: a pain and beauty for which we have no words. And somehow they make me feel more alive.

  • “I love Virginia Woolf’s writing so much that I almost can’t stand to read it”

    I was just thinking about this today as I start reading Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna.  I almost dread reading it, because then I will have already read it, and won’t have it to discover.  I expect to love every second, and mourn when it ends.

    • gretchenrubin

      There’s a wonderful book essay by Nick Hornby where describes reading DAVID
      COPPERFIELD for the first time — being a few pages in, and realizing that
      he’s reading, for the first time, the book that will be his very favorite
      book ever.

  • i love how this post has struck a cord. recently watched a play in london by Ruby Wax titled “losing it”. Im reminded of her need to make people laugh and her struggle with depression. These dualities surely lie in us all, perhaps at different degrees, its interesting to read that some people think its not possible to be happy if you choose to end your life. here’s a link to the guardian review on it.

  • Els

    I really enjoyed your article about Virginia Woolf.  I had only subscribed to your newsletter a day before and was so pleasantly surprised to find some inspiring words about one of my favourite authors the next day.  I finished the Happiness Project book last weekend after discovering it in a bookshop in Newark Airport waiting for my flight back to Brussels.  Your book inspired me to get started on working more on articulating my resolutions and putting them into practice.  Thank you!
    PS Have you read “A life of one’s own” by Ilana Simons:  an original look on the life and writing of V.W. and how her words can enrich our lives.  I can recommend it.
    Take care.

    • gretchenrubin

      I’ll check it out! sounds like just my kind of thing.

  • I am reminded, as well, of May Sarton.

    I gave my writing students an excerpt of from a Journal of Solitude and half the class complained that they couldn’t stand hearing her whine about her life.

    The other half the class said they felt sad for her.

    I said: “But did you notice how she described the flowers in her study. And her cat. And her neighbor who visited?”

    We are frightened often by others’ despair and like to think that people who feel true happiness don’t feel anything else.

    Welcome to the world. Welcome to Life.

    • Peninith1

      A thousand times YES! I keep a journal, and have several times posted notices in it to my children to remember that this is where I dump my darkest thoughts, and that while it may appear so, the journal is only PART of me. It does not mean that the relatively more positive body of work that I’m building up publicly is false. It’s just a private aspect that must be expressed, and I choose to keep it unpublished.

  • yes1and

    John Steinbeck is like this. He won a Nobel Prize for literature, and yet in his own life he was an adulterous, ill-tempered, sometimes drunk, politically scandalous, often downright nasty piece of work.

    He spent a lot of his life trying to find himself, and happiness too, and few people would judge the turtle crossing the road scene from The Grapes of Wrath, merely on the basis of his personal exploits.

  • I LOVE that you are just as passionate about Virginia Woolf as I am! Everyone things I must be a nutter because they think SHE was a nutter. I completely agree with your point about her depression — I think those who know the deepest sorrow know the greatest happiness as well. It reminds me of the Emily Dickinson poem:

    Success is counted sweetest By those who ne’er succeed. To comprehend a nectar Requires sorest need.Not one of all the purple host 
    Who took the flag to-day 
    Can tell the definition, 
    So clear, of victory!As he, defeated, dying,
    On whose forbidden ear
    The distant strains of triumph
    Burst agonized and clear!I love love love this post. Thanks for sharing.

  • Ainsley

    Few people know more about happiness than those who are routinely deprived of it through some unfortunate accident of neurochemistry.  It is all the more precious to those of us who walk through debilitating depressions.

  • Phoenix1920

    There are some people who are more emotionally intense–when they experience something sad, it’s horrible and beyond acceptance.  When they experience happiness, it is likewise more emotional.  I am more emotionally intense, which at times I find so frustrating.  When I try to talk in public on a certain passion I have, my voice cracks and I start to tear up because it brings me such happiness.  But that reaction makes it impossible to speak on the subject in front of audiences.  I wonder if Virginia Woolfe was just emotionally intense, and if so, perhaps she is even better to write on such topics involving emotions.

  • Deirdre

    Please stop referring to Tolstoy as a “dreadful person”—he was a complicated human, who did help many people. Obviously you’ve read A. N. Wilson’s biography which is one person’s perspective on his life. His life may be a cautionary tale of how zealotry of any kind can hurt people, but he was a varied and tormented as Woolf, whose quote yesterday I appreciated. Thank you.

    • gretchenrubin

      I’ve read a few biographies of Tolstoy.

      • Suki

        And what is bad abt his life?

    • Peninith1

      Well, you can be a pretty dreadful person and a great writer and thinker . . . Tolstoy may be one example, but look at what a mess Dostoevsky made of many aspects of his personal life. And then have compassion for some of the ghastly experiences behind his outrageous behavior. I think it’s always a great thing to remember that saying about each person fighting his or her own battle against forces no one else can see. I wouldn’t want to emulate Dostoevsky, that famously ‘nasty Christian’ yet I can think of few writers who have brought deeper insight to their work. I was trained in the ‘New Criticism’ school of thought that tried (and failed) to separate the work from the writer completely. That’s nonsense. But allowing ourselves to be so overwhelmed by distasteful or threatening and scary aspects of a biography that we can’t appreciate the work is worse nonsense. Dickens, that bard of beautiful domesticity, was just an awful husband–does that make his visions of happy unions false? I don’t really think so. Sometimes the most powerful, and empowering visions of the positive and happy are those offered to us out of a depth of longing and not-quite despair.

  • Marti

    I know what you mean about books you enjoy so much you almost can’t stand to read them–sometimes it’s the individual sentences and sometimes the whole thing.  I actually feel some of that same feeling when I read your blog.  I just found it after reading your book and I’m a bit overwhelmed. I want to read all the old posts and then all the old comments and then the links within the posts and comments; then I need to Google some stuff you mentioned  and maybe make a trip to the library; then maybe start some new projects or think about something you reminded me of…All good, but so overwhelming I can hardly start.  Kind of a 3-4 dimensional box of chocolates that leads me off in so many directions.
    But thanks!

  • Melany

    Thank you for your insight and for pointing me to so much interesting writing!

  • Beth Findsen

    Hi Gretchen:

    I just wanted you to know that I love your book (and blog) and even as a cynical lawyer (I know you know what I mean) I appreciate your love of childhood literature and your willingness to cut through the cynicism to find happiness.  I have given your book as a gift and recommended it.  Keep on…

    • gretchenrubin

      I so appreciate your kind words — and am so happy to hear that my work
      resonates with you.

  • Klbuchanan

    Great writers leave the best of themselves on the page for us to enjoy long after they leave us. If we only we read those who also led flawless lives, we won’t have anything to read at all.

    Karen Jamison argues pretty convincingly that Woolf suffered from Manic Depression. A surprisingly high percentage of creative artists do. Perhaps Woolf shared the ecstasy of her mania before finally succumbing to her depression?

    Man, all that sounds pretty pompous, if heartfelt. What I really wanted to say is how much I like your Happiness project concept. I just discovered your page via A.J. Jacobs and am looking forward to reading your book.

  • Suki

    Hi, i dont like Virginia much because she was an feminist and Im antifeminist person so… But I agree with your article 🙂

    And im also curious why u said that Tolstoy was dreadful horrible person? I find him very nice man, he was so much into spirituality and studies about budhism, traveled and also learned abt islam and his mind was not open to many beauties of religion and slirituality.
    He also critised royalty because of very poor people in Russia and their sotuation… What he did that you see him bad? Im just curious 🙂

    Excuse my english please i study english as second language:)