Happiness interview: Harlan Coben.
How did I first make the acquaintance of Harlan Coben? His brother and I went to college together, somehow Harlan and I struck up a conversation by email…it’s lost in the sands of time. Harlan is the spectacularly successful author of many #1 bestselling, prize-winning mystery novels and thrillers, one of which was also turned into a movie.
He’s a gifted writer and a very thoughtful person, so I was curious to hear what he had to say about happiness.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Harlan: Writing. I know that sounds a tad hackneyed and sometimes I don’t even like writing, but it makes me happy. Yes, that’s a contradiction, so let me quote either Dorothy Parker or Oscar Madison: “I don’t like writing—I like having written.” In short, the satisfaction of creating, not necessarily the process, always lifts my heart.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
It’s all about balance.
Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Yes. At the risk of making people click off this website, the Internet is often a waste of time that leaves me feeling drained and unhappy. Again it’s about balance—you’ll see a theme here. Some time online or texting or playing with social media is fine and probably healthy—but not a lot. Think about those times you are forced to unplug. You’re happier, right?
Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “There is only love.”)
I have two mantras.
One I’ve already typed twice before: “It’s all about balance.” Family, writing, health, friends, surfing the web—whatever. They all need to be in balance. If I’m not writing well, I’m not happy. If I’m not spending enough time with my family, I’m not happy. If I’m not connecting to friends or if I don’t work out enough…. You get the point. Everything has to be balanced. Nothing should be an extreme.
My second mantra is more basic: “You bring your own weather to the picnic.” My kids roll their eyes at this one, but there is no question that attitude can go a long way.
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).
It varies. I’ve never found much comfort, for example, in materialism or shopping. It always feels like a temporary boost, followed by some kind of crash. But I still participate. Mostly I find solace in renewing connections and in writing. Those are real. I try to stress to my children that buying something never leads to true happiness.
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?
Envy, of course. I see a lot of it in my profession. One of my favorite mantras is: “No one has to fail so I can succeed.” Enjoy your friends’ successes—and your own.
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?
That’s a good question. I don’t know. I just turned 50. I don’t look back much. I like where I am and so I don’t want to risk going back and changing things and then, well, where would I be? Even the mistakes led me here. I’m always, for better or worse, looking forward.
Do you work on being happier? If so, how?
I think consciously or subconsciously we are always fine-turning our happiness quotient. In my case, as I’ve already said, it’s about balance and connecting. Happiness is a bit like owning a car. Most times it just needs gas and maybe an oil change, but then every, say, six months, when I feel the need for more of an overhaul, I will read a book like, well, The Happiness Project. [Awww, thanks Harlan!] To slip out of this rather lame mixed metaphor, I may already know the information, but a reminder is a good thing.
I also derive a great deal of pleasure out of making other people happy. Yes, I know how self-serving that sounds, but it could, in fact, be pretty damn selfish. I love, for example, when readers tells me that my book made them happy—but is that about them or me or is there a “happiness cusp” between those two? I don’t know, but it might be worth exploring. It certainly sounds win-win.
Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t—or vice versa?
Not really. In the end, we know what makes us happy. We also know what makes us unhappy. That’s the irony. We know and yet we still mess it up. That’s part of the human condition, no, and why we need to work on it.